Gerald Early, a professor of English and African and African-American studies, explodes some of the mythology surrounding the late Muhammad Ali. The first myth is that Ali was a civil rights advocate or activist. Not so:
The Nation of Islam, which Ali joined in 1964, was, if anything, against the civil rights movement and, as a separatist group, opposed to racial integration. The Nation also thought that whites were unnatural beings, while its millennialist bent made members feel superior to civil rights activists.
Early also argues that Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War initially “was more accidental and panic-stricken than informed political protest.”
[Ali] knew nothing about the war’s politics, and his famous utterance about having nothing against the Viet Cong was just his shocked reaction to reporters about his draft status being changed. Yet he grew into one of our country’s most compelling, sincere and important dissidents.
Ali had the courage of his convictions (whatever their origin) regarding the war. But so did the many Americans who suffered more than Ali in the Vietnam Era — whether by serving jail sentences or giving up life in the U.S., or (more impressively, in my view) by fighting in Vietnam out of the conviction that they ought to serve their country.
Early acknowledges that Ali denigrated his black opponents, as when he “unfairly and cruelly” belittled Joe Frazier as an Uncle Tom and a gorilla. But Early defends this on the theory that “Ali had few other options to interest the general public in a bout between two black men other than politicizing his fights.”
The defense doesn’t hold up. The Ali-Frazier fights required no racial attacks or “politicization” to generate interest. They were absolutely compelling solely in sporting terms.
And since when is race-based mockery okay if done for commercial reasons? As Robert Lipsyte asks, “How could [Ali] consider himself a ‘race man’ yet mock the skin color, hair and features of other African-Americans, most notably Joe Frazier?”
Early notes that boxing “has always featured a tradition of trash talking and masculine put-down.” True. But what other fighter in the past 50 years, black or white, based their trash talking on the opponent’s racial features?
Was Ali’s rivalry with Frazier really very different or worse than that between actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis or between scientists Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison or between soul singers Joe Tex and James Brown?
Possibly not, and it was better than the Hatfields and McCoys. But Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, to take the example I recall best, were a pair of witches. I don’t think either was ever viewed as a great human being.
Ali was a great boxer and a great showman, but a bad guy during his years in the limelight. As for his political legacy, which includes his time as a disciple of the abominable Elijah Muhummad, it is no better than mixed.