The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    William K. Wolfrum's picture

    Muhammad Ali & Martin Luther King Jr.: America is the better for them

    It is a wonderful coincidence that Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday comes the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While the two essentially ran in different circles, as it were, both were amazing parts of a time that saw America change dramatically for the better.

    While yesterday saw Americans look to King's words and actions, all would be remiss to overlook what Ali did to change social and cultural norms in the United States.

    In some ways, Ali was a direct link to Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. Johnson was proud to be a Black man long before such an attitude would be accepted in the United States. And for that, he would pay a high price. For more than a half-century after Johnson rose to the top of the boxing world, Black fighters learned an important lesson - if you want to last in boxing, it is best to let your fists do the talking.

    Ali, however, was not to be quieted. Not at all. But herein lies the difference between Johnson and Ali. While Johnson was loud and proud, his actions tended to be for the benefit of himself. Ali burst into the public consciousness in the turbulent 1960s and - with great humor and personality - was a man of his times. He was thoughtful and intelligent, and evolved into a man who understood and thrived on his place in changing times.

    Much has been written of Ali's journey and it is not necessary to recap his life and actions here. He was, without a doubt, a controversial figure during controversial times and he was an imperfect man. But he brought a pride to the African-American community like no other athlete before or since. He changed how many Americans - both Black and White - felt about themselves, their communities and their country. And as his career progressed, he became a man beloved and respected by nearly all.

    Ali's pride, strength and determination were the only things that spoke louder than himself. And his effect on the American psyche is still being felt today.

    Happy 70th birthday, champ.


    Crossposted at William K. Wolfrum Chronicles


    Well done, William.  And while we're at it, let's not forget this man.  The 93rd anniversary of his birth will be January 31st. 

    "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." -- Jackie Robinson

    I never understood Ali.

    I did not care about the name, although the Muslim aspect disturbed me even then especially since the Christian Church (in my mind at the time anyway) delivered the Blacks from evil.

    But how someone could get into a ring and bash somebody's brain in and eventually get his own brain bashed in could claim a pacifist position was and is ridiculous.

    MLK never spoke about head bashing as a technique!

    I dunno.

    Ali was a great boxer (I do not like boxing and for specific reasons related to his current condition which is now over 35 years in the making).

    Ali was a celebrity.

    Ali really never meant anything to me.

    Oh we could use metaphor to see him as struggling in the ring as the Black Man has had to struggle.

    I see him as a nice man.

    But pacifist?



    He didn't call himself a pacifist in his objection to the Vietnam War. He said it wasn't his fight.

    In his resistance to the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr. was more intellectual than Ali but there is a point where their views converged.

    NOPE. He claimed to be a conscientious objector.

    Rather than take the high road and go to jail for 6 months, like many of my friends or rather than going overseas as a medic, he lied.

    It is not my fight did not qualify one as a conscientious objector.

    And Elijah Mohammed was nothing but a damn bug who abused women, stole money and killed Malcolm X.

    I've been thinking about these Ali comments a few days.

    Ali himself said, ""Boxing is nothing like going to war with machine guns, bazookas, hand grenades, bomber airplanes. My intention is to box, to win a clean fight. But in war, the intention is to kill, kill, kill, kill, and continue killing innocent people."

    Typical sentence for those refusing Vietnam was 18 months. That Ali got 5 years doesn't change that he would likely expect some jail time. He also gave away his title and permission to fight in the prime of his life. He could have easily played Elvis instead.

    But while I would bicker with the idea of allowing Islam the right to decide when someone fights for a government, his speeches at colleges were very important for the anti-war movement (even though he was supporting himself with the same speeches).

    It's easy to see Ali as a primitive (okay, he was), but at the same time he had a knack for annoying, subversive simplicity that would get under his opponents' skin. The same applied to his anti-war statement. "I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong", or noting that blacks were only humans when it came to registering for the draft. A bit like Palin's penchant for sending "death panel" quotes out into the public that both encapsulated the opposition (whether "true" or not) and also enraged the opposition about her personally.

    But in some ways, I think Ali hurt blacks' image in America - to whites, I think he came across as the dumb shallow loud uneducated black that many whites wanted to stereotype. While it helped him gain psychological advantage, and there's still some debate whether he was actually illiterate in his early 20's, it was a mixed blessing for race relations.

    But then Nation of Islam was a mixed blessing as well - and not entirely supportive of Ali skipping the draft.

    One interesting item was that Ali was named at birth "Cassius" after the name of a famous abolitionist, and exchanged this name for a Muslim one, ironically for Muhammad's who owned and traded black slaves himself.


    I never understood Ali.

    I dunno.

    Couldn't agree with you more, Richard.

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