(Edited- Billy Crystal's eulogy from Ali's funeral added)
I grew up in Moore, Oklahoma and graduated from high school in 1977. I was one of 700 seniors in a school of 3,400 that included 1,200 juniors and 1,500 sophomore students. None of those students were black. Not one. I feel very comfortable saying that Moore was whiter than a loaf of Wonder Bread because Moore, Oklahoma didn't even have a brown crust in those days. There was no "other side" of town to talk about or resent and in retrospect, maybe that was, at least in once sense, a good thing. At least it was in my case because when desegregation and busing was causing so much resentment and hate in other areas of Oklahoma City, I was buffered from it. There were no black children to bus miles from home who would be forced into hate-filled environments.
That doesn't mean that racism wasn't a problem. Five years before my graduation, two black children, a boy and a girl, started the fall term. By Christmas break they were gone. I never knew why and never asked, but my instinct tells me they didn't leave for the reason my folks spoke of: "because their Dad got a new job elsewhere."
I remember those kids today because that was also the year of "The Fight of the Century," Ali vs Frazier, 1971. I was twelve at the time and for me it was the year I realized that perhaps Mom and Dad either didn't have all the answers or were uncomfortable answering questions deeper than, "where do babies come from?"
I knew of Muhammad Ali of course and his stand against the Vietnam War, but I didn't actually start listening to the man closely until his comeback year in 1970. His method of presentation was simple and brilliant. He turned his enemy's hate against them. He was talking and they wanted him to shut up. They sought to discredit Ali at every turn and he enticed them to listen by pushing the limit of truth on little things so his bigger message would be heard.... over and over again.
Even though both Ali and Joe Frazier were black, the fight was being touted as a white vs black contest and Ali was very much the catalyst and perfectly willing to play the role of villain to "white bread without the crust" America. The man would say anything that crossed his mind, and he wanted a captive audience and got it with never before seen boldness and a little bait. Joe Frazier grew up poor, Ali not so much, but that didn't stop the former champ from calling Frazier "Uncle Tom" and that "the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I'm fighting for the little man in the ghetto."
Further, when Ali announced that he was a Muslim after taking the title from Sonny Liston in 1964, he told the world he would no longer carry the name of those that held his ancestors in bondage. However, the whole truth was that he was actually named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who had been named in honor of the 19th-century Republican politician and staunch abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, also from the state of Kentucky. (But having followed the man for these past 45 years, I have little doubt that if confronted on those minor details that Ali would have said something to the effect of, "Why you worrying about that? You gonna sit there and tell me there was never a man named Clay that owned a slave? That you have more in common with a man from the ghetto than I do?)
Does it really matter if Ali knew he was telling itty bitty lies to get his bigger message across? Honestly, I don't remember a thing Joe Frazier said before or after that fight, but I remember what Ali said. In the final analysis, he was smart enough, bold enough, entertaining enough, and crafty enough to seize and hold an opportunity to speak his mind on TV and reach right through our set and grab my attention.
I guess you could say I was pretty much a clean slate in 1971. Again, as far as I knew, racism was something on TV and even though my father didn't agree with Ali's stance against the war, he never made it into a race thing, and thus my opinions were not shackled by preconceived ideas or racial prejudices. Additionally, the "N-word" was not allowed in our home. It ranked right up there with the "F-word" and I will always be grateful for that.
Had things been different, who is to say if I would have been open to anything Ali said. He was a man speaking the truth as he saw it...well...for the most part any way.
As stated, before discovering Ali, I was basically a clean slate, and I had questions, and there were three events that I didn't understand. I knew there was something more than just bad men doing bad things when three men, John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Dr. Martin Luther King were all assassinated before my tenth birthday. Even at that young age, I always felt their deaths were connected. I know it is a matter for debate, but I don't believe the Vietnam War as we now remember it would have escalated had Kennedy been re-elected in 1964. JFK was also a staunch supporter of civil rights and I am a firm believer that Robert's assassination prevented the truth about JFK's assassination from ever seeing the light of day.
Personally, I feel Bobby Kennedy would have been a great president. On the day Dr. King was gunned down, he was scheduled to attend a rally at 17th and Broadway in the heart of Indianapolis's African-American ghetto. Upon hearing the news of King's death, Kennedy placed his head in hands and exclaimed, "Oh, God. When is this violence going to stop?" and despite fear of rioting and concerns for his safety, Kennedy refused to cancel his speech against the counsel of his advisers and warnings from local police that they would be unable to control the situation if violence erupted.
Many in the crowd were unaware of the shooting, much less the passing of Dr. King, and now a white man was about to tell them one of the most iconic and beloved symbols of the civil rights movement was dead at the hands of another white man. Not a situation for the faint of heart, but Kennedy refused to shrink from his responsibility to his supporters, and his words that day are considered to be one of the great public addresses of the modern era:
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some -- some very sad news for all of you -- Could you lower those signs, please? -- I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.
(as you might imagine, the crowd's reaction to that opening was a mixture of shock and outrage, screams and wailing, and of course, anger.... somehow Kennedy was able to maintain control and regain the attention of those in attendance and continued)
Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.
We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.
For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.
But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King -- yeah, it's true -- but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love -- a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.
We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past, but we -- and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.
But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.
And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.
Thank you very much.
-Robert F Kennedy, April 4, 1968
Rioting broke out in over 60 US cities after the terrible news of Dr. King's passing. Thirty-five people died and another 2,500 were injured, but in the aftermath of Robert Kennedy's short but sincere five minute speech, Indianapolis remained calm.
Kennedy's words that day are engraved in his memorial at Arlington Cemetery...it is hard to argue with the truth, no matter where it comes from.
Sixty-three days later, Robert Francis Kennedy, shortly after winning the California Presidential primary, a victory many believe positioned Kennedy to eventually win the Democratic nomination and very likely the Presidency itself, was shot and killed while delivering a victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968.
Three men, all outspoken advocates of civil rights, and at least two that had openly spoken out against the war in Vietnam, were all dead as a result of an assassin's bullet in less than four years. Call it a coincidence if you like, but I will never be convinced these three deaths weren't connected.
Racism, hate, the war in Vietnam, great men gunned down in their prime...the America on television was not the same America being taught in class, and when you're the eldest son and grandson, your parents aren't always sure when is the right time to answer questions when they were unsure about the answers themselves. My rule of thumb as a result was simple: if they are old enough to ask, they are old enough to know, and I wanted answers.
I grew up watching footage of American GI's being carried away on stretchers and in body bags, and by 1971 I was convinced it was my destiny to grow up, be drafted, and die in Vietnam. (try to get some sleep with that tugging at your psyche every night)
Now, from seemingly nowhere was a man, a black man, saying the very things that I was screaming in my mind. 'Why must I die just to have a chance to shoot someone I don't know!?' Fighting the Japanese after Pearl Harbor made sense, but dying in Vietnam did not.
One of Ali's most famous quotes was, "I ain't got nothing against them Viet Congs....". There is some debate about whether he added, "No Viet Cong ever called me N%&&@!...." but I felt the same way. I had absolutely nothing against the Vietnamese, had never seen a Vietnamese national, and as far as I knew, no Vietnamese had ever hurt me.
Ali may have never said that second part, but he took credit for it later on nonetheless and I KNOW he said this:
"You my opposer when I want freedom, you my opposer when I want justice, you my opposer when I want equality.... you won't even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won't even stand up for me here at home...."
I remember the backlash from those words. I remember people calling Ali a coward and worse. That he was just hiding behind some pseudo religious beliefs because he was afraid to die, and I remember being sickened by those words. I wasn't the sharpest student in class, but I sure as hell wasn't the dullest and I understood the concept of "conscientious objector." I knew that Ali had declared himself a Muslim three years prior to being drafted and I also knew he failed the qualifying tests in 1964. Later I found out Ali was never concerned about death when he confronted that white student because he had been offered a position very similar to the one Joe Louis held in the Special Services Division during WWII just to shut him up.
Ali wasn't standing up to the US government for himself, he didn't jeopardize his career or put himself at risk of imprisonment because he was afraid to die, he put himself in harms way for his faith and told that itty bitty fib because he was speaking out for that "little guy in the ghetto" that very well may die. For that guy that no one would listen to as he was being dragged into a war he didn't believe in and as far as I was concerned, he was speaking for me.
I found two videos while looking for a good way to finish this post. This first one is very old footage shot shortly after Ali won the gold medal at the Olympics in Rome. Pay particular attention to the waitress and exactly what she says:
Now watch the second video. Please watch all of it, but remember the first video when Ali retells the story of the restaurant encounter about 3 minutes in:
The waitress did not say "negro" and Ali could have used what she did say to promote hate, but he didn't. Her vulgar prejudice would distract from the truth. So Ali told a itty bitty fib so no one would lose focus on that bigger truth just like he did when he said he was named for his slave master or he was speaking for a man from the ghetto he could barely relate with. Ali didn't believe in hate, Ali believed in love, and even though he was a Muslim and I am a Christian, he spoke a truth that spoke to my heart. For the record, Jesus was not white, he was a dark-skinned Jew and would often slip away and get easily lost in the crowd. If Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes he could have no more gotten lost in a crowd in Jerusalem in his day than Dolph Lundgren could have, but Ali's perception that white was always portrayed as good and black as bad was the bigger truth here.
From Websters' Dictionary:
a : thoroughly sinister or evil : wicked
b : indicative of condemnation or discredit
: connected with or invoking the supernatural and especially the devil
a : very sad, gloomy, or calamitous
b : marked by the occurrence of disaster
: free from spot or blemish: as
a (1) : free from moral impurity : innocent (2) : marked by the wearing of white by the woman as a symbol of purity
b : unmarked by writing or printing
c : not intended to cause harm
d : favorable, fortunate
Personally, I've always been partial to devil's food cake myself.
Three years after regaining his title against George Foreman in the "Rumble in the Jungle," and two years after what many deem the greatest bout of all time, the "Thrilla in Manilla," Ali's third and decisive contest against Joe Frazier, and the turmoil of the Vietnam War and questions about draft dodging were in the past, Ali's message never changed and he never wavered from his faith. This final video was shot in 1977. Note the boy asking the question, my guess is he is around 12 or 13, note his clothes (Tony Manero from "Saturday Night Fever" would be proud), but most importantly, note the respect Ali pays to an important question regardless of the source:
I loved Muhammad Ali. I loved his skill, his wit, I loved the respect he gave a 12 year old with that answer, but most of all, I loved his courage to speak the truth as he saw it. Even when Frazier won the "Fight of the Century," Ali stood tall and would not bow down to any man. He changed my life and I wish I could thank him because he gave a 12 year old from White Bread, America, who was just beginning to understand the world around him and going to bed every night afraid of that world, hope for a better tomorrow.
(During Ali's career, you really couldn't say Ali without adding Howard Cosell, there will never be two like this again)
(the truth comes out. Ali used his boxing career as a platform to instill change. He didn't hate Joe Frazier....never did)
(Update - Billy Crystal's eulogy of Ali. Ali indeed made a difference for everyone.)
We are Ali!