Today would have been Muhammad Ali’s 76th birthday, just two days after what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 88th birthday. And though they were 12 years and two days apart in age, they defined the age in which they lived.
Make that redefined.
Growing up in the 1960s, we had lots of varied heroes. Baseball stars…football stars…rock stars…movie stars…even political stars like JFK and Bobby. Then there were the unlikely heroes…unlikely partly because of the color of their skin and partly for their political and social philosophy and activism.
If sluggers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were the “M & M boys” of baseball, then the M & M & M heroes of social activism were Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Retrospect has given us more heroes and luminaries in that arena. In what was an awakening for white folks like me. I learned about Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin, and later watched Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their black-gloved fists – in solidarity with their brethren back home — on a platform reserved for Olympic champions, after victoriously representing the United States of America to the world.
What these heroes had in common – beyond their skin color – was a willingness to stand up and tell truth to power, personal consequences be damned.
In plain, everyday English it is called “courage.”
Ali was my hero in my teen years, beginning before his three-year boxing “layoff” and extending to this day, for me, a half-century later. Some heroes of our youth fade…we are less impressed the older we get, or we become cynical or simply wise to the ways of the world, hip to the nature of the smoke and mirrors of PR and show business. Sadly, other heroes show themselves to have feet of clay (and not the “Clay” that preceded the Champ’s evolution into Muhammad Ali).
Still, Ali did not disappoint. Indeed, for me and many others he continued to impress, to acquire greater stature, greater humanity, greater meaning…and most of it was for what he did outside of the boxing ring. I looked for a photo of Ali interacting with kids because that is where the love in his eyes is most apparent…around kids. And they give the love right back. Instinctively.
My own interactions with the Champ spanned several of my teenage years and I still cannot believe how fortunate I was to have those experiences and memories. Still the picture that accompanies these words is of the fighter…not the prize fighter…the fighter for justice, equality and human dignity that transcended his ring achievements and his ring career.
Ali remains a hero to me, which is why, a little more than a year after his passing I put these words to paper and post them for your consideration. I have not seen the state of our union so polarized since the late 50s/early 60s when the historic civil rights struggles came to a frequently violent head, Dr. King’s entreaties for non-violence notwithstanding.
And it’s not about “playing the race card” as the bigots like to call it.
In fairness, Dr. King’s followers kept the faith in the face of Billy clubs, fire hoses, dogs and guns. And those who wielded them found themselves spawning a more violent, more confrontational wing of the civil rights movement. When H. Rap Brown said that violence was, “As American as cherry pie” and Malcolm X warned of “the chickens coming home to roost” many in White America recoiled in fear, perhaps recognizing the truth in those statements but not anxious to experience their meaning first hand.
So it was that when the newly crowned Heavyweight Champion of the World announced that he was renouncing his slave name Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and would henceforth be known as Muhammad Ali having embraced the Nation of Islam as his religion, much of the white establishment sought to put him back in his place.
They picked on the wrong guy.
Courage. conviction and character were more important to this man Ali, even than that other “c” word — “champion” – that he worked so hard to achieve. In the end, those qualities made him a greater champion than pure ring prowess ever could have…And a greater hero than merely floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, could ever have conjured.
“Service to others,” Ali said, “is the rent you pay for the room here on earth”
It’s easy to say that, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Heroes like Muhammad Ali were never an everyday occurrence and they would not stand out from the crowd so decisively if they were. Very often the full impact of courageous action can only be seen in retrospect. There is a clue however, to the significance of what you’re seeing in real time. A tip off that a stand and the courage of the one doing the standing, are important.
And that “tell” is the exceedingly hostile reaction people – important, powerful people – have to the position and the action being taken…and the person taking it.
So, on this 76th birthday of Muhammad Ali – a man who ever reigns as “the greatest” in my heart and mind – and in his blessed memory, I salute Colin Kaepernick for having the courage to take a stand by taking a knee; for not backing down despite being blackballed from his profession; for refusing to surrender when attacked by the President and Vice President of the United States, and for refusing to allow others to mischaracterize his protest in order to discredit it and him.
On this day, I do believe the Champ would be proud to see his example and his legacy continue.