Muhammad Ali and the Myth Of a Civil Rights Hero

Eric FleuryContributor IApril 20, 2009

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 24:  Muhammad Ali attends the opening session of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) September 24, 2008 in New York City. President Clinton is hosting the fourth annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a gathering of politicians celebrities, philanthropists and business leaders grouped together to discuss pressing global issues.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On June 20th, Major League Baseball will confer its annual Beacon Awards for outstanding contributions to civil rights to baseball legend Hank Aaron, comedian and social commentator Bill Cosby, and boxing’s most grandiose personality, Muhammad Ali. 

This begs the question: why is baseball handing out civil rights awards in the first place? Perhaps MLB is still anxious over the perception that its integration project has, thus far, failed to meet expectations.  An endless parade of tributes to the heroic Jackie Robinson ring hollow when only 9 percent of players, and very few managers, are black. 

In an era when sports and entertainment increasingly seek social relevance with a steady diet of self-congratulation, perhaps a civil rights award is the perfect way for baseball to bolster its racial credentials, celebrating its own commitment to equality along with the recipient. 

Regardless of baseball’s motivation, Aaron is an obvious, laudable choice, and Cosby’s selection could reignite an important discussion, as his reception has become increasingly unwelcome in many African-American circles. 

Ali’s selection, on the other hand, demands closer review.  He is, of course, a figure who has transcended his sport to a remarkable degree.  He was Sports Illustrated’s ‘Sportsman of the Century,’ Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, and UN Ambassador, in addition to his numerous boxing laurels. 

This most recent award is a minor jewel in his already resplendent crown, and his status as a genuine international hero and crusader for civil rights is implacable. 

Considering just how entrenched this image is in contemporary culture, it is stunning how easily it crumbles under even the most moderate scrutiny.  Even the briefest glimpse at Ali’s life and career reveals not a saintly hero for the oppressed, but a vicious and cynical manipulator who used race as a cudgel to hammer whites and blacks alike, while shamelessly donning the mantle of racial justice for himself, and himself alone. 

The Nation of Islam could not have possibly selected a better mouthpiece than the obnoxious young contender Cassius Clay, a name which he would later disavow as his ‘slave name,’ an amusing irony since he was named after a famed abolitionist.  

Elijah Muhammad shrewdly foresaw that a representative at the apex of the sports world would provide an ideal opportunity for his ideology to infiltrate the mainstream at an unprecedented rate, especially with someone who would never stop talking. 

The relationship was equally beneficial for Clay, anxious over his light skin and sponsorship by white businessmen in his native Louisville. The Nation allowed him to cement his racial credentials by joining an organization claiming to be the sole authentic voice for African-Americans by virtue of…well, its saying so.

Elijah Muhammad allowed Clay to publicly convert and change his name only after he claimed the heavyweight championship in February 1964, the first of two highly controversial bouts against Sonny Liston. 

As champion at the height of the civil rights era, Ali became a loyal spokesman of the Nation’s program, which was a violent repudiation of ‘civil rights’ as we understand them, and instead a relentless insistence upon racial division and hatred.

Whites, of course, were an easy target given the immense pressure on the Jim Crow establishment.  Ali routinely referred to whites as “the devil” and “the enemy,” including to sympathetic reporters who seemed to enjoy the insults. 

As Elijah Muhammad taught, whites were not even really human, but the twisted product of an immortal mad scientist who dwells on a small island in the Indian Ocean.  Integration was of course a sick joke, since after all, “we are not all brothers.” 

Perhaps even more disturbing is the stunning cruelty Ali showed to other blacks, whom he labeled as stooges of the white establishment if they dared to disagree with him. 

The great Joe Louis, who arguably did more for civil rights than Jackie Robinson?  An Uncle Tom, after he dared to criticize Ali’s hate speech. 

Floyd Patterson, a gentle soul and social activist who, like Louis, demurred from the Ali line?  An Uncle Tom, whom Ali swore he would beat mercilessly to stop him from ‘acting white.’     

Joe Frazier, from the heart of black America, who befriended an Ali beleaguered by an admittedly unjust suspension?  An Uncle Tom, a gorilla, ignorant, and ugly; insults drenched with racist history which he would constantly repeat to a rapturous audience of mostly white reporters.  

George Foreman, who proudly waved the American flag after winning the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City?  A ‘white, Christian bitch.’ 

Ali spent the entire civil rights era boosting no one other than himself.  Whites were subhuman monsters, and blacks not aligned with the Nation of Islam were either traitors or mere animals. 

Although the Nation never attempted to execute any acts of mass violence, their view of race, which Ali wholeheartedly adopted, is essentially a mirror-image of the Ku Klux Klan and other abhorrent bastions of white supremacy.  How do we condemn the one, however justly, and give the other an NCAAP Image Award? 

Allow me to anticipate some common objections. Most Ali defenders portray him as a rebel against an unjust establishment who was persecuted for his beliefs. On the first count, there is no doubt that America was, and to a certain extent still is, a racist society in need of dissenting voices. 

But just because one group is bad, it does not mean its opponent is good, particularly when Ali arbitrarily sets the boundaries of who is bad (all whites and apparently quite a few blacks) and who is good (himself, Bundini Brown, Elijah and Herbert Muhammad, and maybe Howard Cosell.)   

On the charge of persecution, there is little doubt that Ali’s three-year suspension was both ill-considered and unjust.  But was Ali an emblem of the nascent antiwar movement?  Only if one considers an unfettered hatred of one’s country, the same hatred that caused him to discard his Olympic medals, as a victory of conscience. 

Why did Bill Clinton and George W. Bush face immense pressure for ‘draft-dodging’ but Muhammad Ali is lauded for spewing out one-liners fed by the Nation of Islam hierarchy?  

In times of great turbulence and moral confusion, people typically do not look within themselves or the community, but to strongmen and tyrants to tell us what to do and how to think. 

In the 1960s, when it seemed as though all authority and tradition was crumbling, and the line between politics and entertainment blurred, the heavyweight champion of the world became our source of moral authority, especially one loud enough to command our undivided attention. 

It didn’t matter if his incessant ramblings were vapid and mean-spirited.  They sounded awfully cool.  So what if he was a racist thug?  He fought the establishment.  A rampant womanizer and profligate?  Who cares, he’s the greatest of all time.    

Ali apologize for many of his words long after the spotlight had receded, and left the NOI after the death of Elijah Muhammad.  Clearly, criticism has understandably faded as we watch him slowly succumb to an awful illness. 

Nevertheless, Ali does not deserve a free pass, or unquestioned heroism.  He need not be roundly condemned either; his case is a complex one that might provide valuable insights in a time of great upheaval. 

But instead, we have taken the easy way out and turned his life into a moralistic melodrama of good versus evil, victim versus oppressor, and allowed ideology to win the day over history. 

We have taken a divisive, controversial, often repulsive man and sanitized him to the point where he is fit for a Gatorade commercial and perennial awards ceremony.  If the young Ali were around today, he might even call him an Uncle Tom. 


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