In the 1950s and 1960s I remember my parents excitedly calling others when they’d see any black person on television.
The occurrence was such an anomaly. We were Negroes and coloreds then. Stifling prejudices, segregation and discrimination kept minorities locked out of opportunities. That included appearances on TV.
It’s hard to imagine for anyone who didn’t live in those uncomfortable shoes the excitement, joy and pride that Muhammad Ali generated every time he was on TV. Cassius Clay, who became Ali in 1964 when he dropped his “slave name” to become a Muslim in the Nation of Islam, got the phones to really ring in black communities nationwide.
Ali was our extremely boastful champion, promising to be the best and then fiercely delivering with blinding speed and knockout force. He proved that the inferiority of minorities was America’s greatest lie. With all of the media adulation since his death Friday at age 74, it hardly seems possible that Ali was hated by most of white America. He dared to champion the hopes and dreams of black people worldwide, making us feel empowered instead of powerless.
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We tried to talk like him, cut our hair in Afros as he did and especially fight like him. What’s fascinating is my dad’s father had Jack Johnson, a son of slaves like him, win the heavyweight title in 1910, in what was called the “Fight of the Century.” Dad and his generation had Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who won the crown in 1937 and held it for 12 years.
But Ali was different. After winning the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Rome Olympics in 1960, the trajectory of his career for blacks paralleled the growth and the power of the civil rights movement.
I was in third grade when Ali defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 to win the heavyweight title and in fourth grade when he beat Liston again in 1965. President Lyndon Johnson also signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement.
King later angered Johnson, speaking against the Vietnam War; Ali did the same thing, claiming conscientious objector status in 1967 because of his religion, refusing induction in the military. He was charged with draft evasion, stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to five years in prison, although he served no time.
Ali said he wouldn’t kill other people of color to benefit a nation that was oppressing people like him. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 reversed the draft evasion conviction, landing Ali on the right side of history.
Ali’s return to the ring in the 1971 title fight against Joe Frazier was a painful defeat. It was a personal loss especially for the few of us black students integrating the mostly white Southwest High School in St. Louis. But Ali taught us again through his perseverance, becoming in 1974 only the second man in boxing history to regain the heavyweight title, knocking out George Foreman. I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia then.
My path and Ali’s crossed in 1976 when I was a reporter/photographer with The St. Louis Sentinel, covering a run against hunger Ali did with comedian and activist Dick Gregory. Ali jived and jabbed people in person as much as he did on TV.
I learned from him that most people fight in anger, but a boxer like him wins by outwitting opponents. Ali’s mistake was that he stayed in the ring too long, losing to Leon Spinks in 1978, Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Burbick in 1981.
His last fight was against Parkinson’s disease. But he will always be remembered as the greatest — first among African-Americans and now the rest of the country and the world, which can finally see him as we always did.