WhatsMyName-Chapt3 - lm saying to him my son will not be...

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Unformatted text preview: lm saying to him, my son will not be . settle for.” Robin- a War came crash- mbat in Southeast g a gun, scared of gan to change his (1 observe how lost 3 are, I find IIIYScif out to them and let s I don’t know the 11 when King came [hts movement. At (ing called him and Robinson pledged 1ch—criticized move- )lympics, writing, “I make the sacrifice ic medalfl respect reason and frustra- ; in my day; perhaps gran,” “Republican,” fly the flag on the ee a car with a flag eel isn’t my friend.” ray in 1972 from com- N0 years old. As Red lckie Robinson is ‘un— iot by the other team seen retired by all of obinson as well. § CHAPTER THREE Bumble, Young Man, Humble: Muhammad Ali and the 19603 ' Film footage of Muhammad Ali is used to sell everything from soft drinks to cars. We are spoon-fed an easily digestible image of the young All, an improbably charismatic boxer, danc- ing in the ring and crowing, “I am the greatest!” The Ali oft present is also easy to take in, a very public figure desp e his near total inability to move or speak,-his voice silenced both by years of boxing and by Parkinson’s disease. The establishment embraces this Ali as a walking saint. In 1996, Ali was sent to light the Olympic Torch in Atlanta. In 2002, he “agreed to star in a Hollywood-produced advertising campaign, designed to ex- plain America and the war in Afghanistan to the Muslim world.” In 2004, he appeared in a cuddly Super Bowl ad, telling a young, blond child that the future was his. Later that year, he threw out the first pitch at baseball’s All-Star game. The present Ali has been absorbed by the establishment as a legend—a harmless, helpful icon. There is barely a trace left of the ragged truth: Never has an athlete been more reviled by the mainstream press, more persecuted by the US govern: ment, or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali. Yet this Ali, the catalyst that forced profes- sional sports—and the country as a whole—to examine the is- sues of racism and war, no longer exists. The reason for this is not difficult to fathom. The golden 54 O WHAT'S MY NAME, FOOL? rule of big-time sports is that “jocks” are not supposed to be political, unless it involves saluting the flag, supporting the troops, selling a war, or, in the case of Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, supporting President Bush. All of that is accept- able. But a radical in running shoes is not. When Toni Smith, the basketball captain at little Division III’s Manhattanville Col— lege, turned her back on the flag in 2003, the attack was rabid. In March of the same year, when Wake Forest basketball All- American Josh Howard said about the US. war on Iraq, “It’s all over oil. . .that’s how I feel,” not only was Howard derided pub- . licly, but NBA draft reports stated, “Antiwar remarks reflect ru- mored erratic behavior.” The hidden history of Muhammad Ali and the revolt of the Black athlete in the 1960s is therefore a living history. By re- claiming it from the powers that be, we not only gain a better understanding of the struggles of the 1960s, we also see how struggle can shape every aspect of life in the United States— even sports. Boxing No sport has chewed athletes up and spit them out—espe— cially Black athletes—quite like boxing. For the very few who “make it,” it is never the sport of choice. Boxing has always been for the poor, for people born at the absolute margins of society. The first boxers in the United States were slaves. Southern plantation owners amused themselves by putting to- gether the strongest slaves and having them fight it out while wearing iron collars. After the abolition of slavery, boxing was unique among sports because it was desegregated as early as the turn of the last century. This was not because the people who ran boxing were in any way progressive. They make the people who run boxing today resemble gentlemen of great character. Those early promoters simply wanted to make a buck off the rampant racism in American society by pitting . m Wmtuq(14%5W4wzmmtmelMIIfl-tlplvnxw:m>—'_ RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE: MUHAMMAD ALI O 55 Black vs. white for public spectacle. Unwittingly, these early fight financiers opened up a space in which the white suprema- cist ideas of the day could be challenged. This was the era of deeply racist pseudo-science. The attitude of social Darwinist quacks was that Blacks were not only mentally inferior but also physically inferior to whites. Blacks were cast as too lazy and too undisciplined to ever be taken seriously as athletes. . When Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight- boxing champion in 1908, his victory created a serious crisis for these ideas. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a “Great White Hope” to restore order to the world. Former champion Jim J effries came out of retirement to re- store that order, saying, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” At the fight, whichtook place in 1910, the ringside band played, “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” and promoters led the nearly all-white crowd in the chant “Kill the nigger.” But J 011n- son was faster, stronger, and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease. After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the countrymin Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, DC; Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attempting to enter Black neighborhoods and Blacks fighting back. This re- action to a boxing match was the most widespread simultane— ous racial uprising in the US. until the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Right-wing religious groups immediately organized a move- ment to ban boxing, and Congress actually passed a law that prohibited the showing of boxing films. Black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, pushed Johnson to condemn the African-American uprising. But Johnson remained defiant. He not only spoke out on all issues of the day, he also broke racist social taboos by marrying white women, and as a result faced 56 O WHAT'S MY NAME, FOOL? harassment and persecution for most of his life. Johnson was forced into exile in 1913 on the trumped-up charge of trans- porting a white woman across state lines for prostitution. The “Johnson backlash” meant that it would be twenty years before the rise of another Black heavyweight champ— “The Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis. Louis was quiet where J ohn— son had been outspoken. An all-white management team handled Louis very carefully, and had a set of rules he had to follow, including, “never be photographed with a white woman,- never go to a club by yourself, and never speak unless spoken to.” But the Brown Bomber’s timid public face became fierce in the ring. Louis scored sixty-nine victories in seveniy-two pro- fessional fights—fifty—five of them knockouts. Despite the docile image demanded by his handlers, Joe Louis—and his dominance in the ring—represented dignity and resistance to Blacks and to the radicalizing working class of the 1930s. This played out most famously during Louis’s two fights against German boxer Max Schmeling in 1935 and 1938. German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler promoted Schmeling as the epitome of “Aryan greatness,” and in their first bout, Schmeling knocked out Louis. Hitler and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels had a field day, and the southern press in the United States laughed it up. One columnist for the New Orleans Picayune wrote, “I guess this proves who really is the master race.” The Louis—Schmeling rematch in 1938 was even more po~ litically loaded—a physical referendum on Hitler, the Jim Crow South, and antiracism. The US. Communist Party or- ganized radio listenings of the fight from Harlem to Birming— ham that became mass meetings—complete with armed guards at the door. Hitler closed down movie houses so all of Germany would be compelled to listen to the fight. The cin- ema doors probably should have been kept open; Louis devas- RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE: MUHAMMAD AL] 0 57 tated Schmeling in one round, with lightning combinations that stunned the big German. In a notorious move, Hitler cut all of Germany’s radio power when it was clear that the knockout was coming. The Brown Bomber held the heavyweight title for twelve years, the longest reign in history. He beat all comers, the overwhelming majority of them white, successfully defending his title a record twenty-five times. He was, according to poet Maya Angelou, “The one invincible Negro, the one who stood up to the white man and beat him down with his fists. He in a sense carried so many Of our hopes, and maybe even our dreams of vengeance.” Thirty years after the fight against Schmeling, Martin Luther King Jr. reinforced its significance by reminding readers of Why We Can’t Wait that More than 25 years ago, one of the southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner to judge how the victim reacted in this novel situation. The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container, and the gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words. “Save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis. Save me Joe Louis.” In a society so violently racist, boxing became an outlet for people’s anger—an arena where the thwarted ability, unrecog- nized talent, and relentless fighting spirit that shaped the Black experience in the US. could be acted out in all its intensity and proportionate rage. “King of the World” Muhammad Ali’s identity was forged in the 19503 and 19605, as the Black freedom struggle heated up and boiled over. He was born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942. His father, a frustrated artist, made his living as a house 58 0 WHAT'S MY NAME, FOOL? painter. His mother, like Jackie Robinson’s mother, was a do- mestic worker. The Louisville of 1942 was a segregated horse- breeding community, where being Black meant being seen as a servant. But the young Clay could box. And he could talk. He had a mouth like no fighter, athlete, or public Black figure any- one had ever heard. Joe Louis used to say, “My manager does my talking for me. I do my talking in the ring.” Clay did his own talking, inside and outside the ring. The press called him the Louisville Lip, Cash the Brash, Mighty Mouth, and Gaseous Cassius. He used to say he talked so much because his hero was Gorgeous George, a flamboyant, verbose, White pro wrestler of the late 1950s. But once, in an unguarded mo- ment, he said, “Where do you think I’d be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler? I’d probably be down in my hometown washing windows and saying yassuh and nossuh and knowing my place." And Ali, of course, could back up the talk. His boxing skills won him the gold medal in the 1960 Greek Olympics at age eighteen. When he returned from the Olympiad—wand this is the first step in his political arc——the young Clay held a press conference at the airport, his gold medal swinging from his neck, and rifled: To make America the greatest is my goal So I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole And for the USA won the medal of Gold. The Greeks said, You’re better than the Cassius of Old. Clay loved his gold medal. Fellow Olympian Wilma Rudolph remembered, “He slept with it, he went to the cafete— ria with it. He never took it off.” The week after returning home from the Olympics, Clay went with his medal swinging around his neck to eat a cheeseburger in a LouiSVille restau— rant—and was denied service. He threw his beloved medal into the Ohio River. This started the eighteen-year—old on a po- o “3“: i i i ; r»; RUMBLE. YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE: MUHAMMAD ALI O 59 Bass-ins olay's handlers hold him hack as he reacts after he is announced the new heavyweight champion of the world on a seventh round technical knockout against Sonny listen at Convention Hall in Miami Beach, Florida, on Feb. 25, 1964. (AP) litical journey that would define his era. The young Clay actively looked for political answers and began finding them when he heard Malcolm X speak at. a meet- ing of the Nation of Islam (N 01). He heard Malcolm X say, “You might see these Negroes who believe in nonviolence and mis- 60 O WHAT'S MY NAME, FOOL?‘ take us for one of them and put your hands on us thinking that we are going to turn the other cheek—and we’ll put you to death just like that.” The young fighter and Malcolm X became political allies and fast friends. Malcolm stayed with Clay as he trained for his fight against “The Big Ugly Bear,” champion Sonny Liston. . With Malcolm around, rumors that Clay was going to join the NOI flew through the sports pages, and the press hounded him, wanting to know Whether he planned to become a member. At one point he said, “I mightif you keep asking me.” When everyone else'was forecasting an easy knockout for Liston, Malcolm X predicted otherwise: Clay will win. He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robin- son is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero.... Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that although file clown never imitates a wise man, a wise man can im- _ itate the clown. Although the verdict was out on whether he was a wise man or a clown, no one except Malcolm X gave him a chance against Liston, a hulking eX—con who had worked for the Mob as a picket-line leg-breaker. But Ali—"quicker, stronger, and bolder than they knew—"shocked the world and beat Liston. He then said famously, “I’m king of the world!” When Ali said he was the greatest, it wasn’t far from the truth. His trainer Angelo Dundee once said with a smile, “He de- stroyed [the style of] a generation of fighters by boxing with his hands down. Everyone else who did that got creamed but Ali was So quick he could get away with it.” All also set a new stan- dard for ring speed. He used to say, “I’m so fast, I can turn off the bedroom lights and get in bed before it gets dark.” As writer Gary Kamiya put it, No one had ever seen anyone that big move that fast; no one had ever seen anyone fiiat graceful hurt other people so badly. Fighting Ali was like being forced to glide across the floor with Gene Kelly in i ”WWW.MWWWIWW%WHAM...=... RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN. RUMBLE: MUHAMMAD ALI 9 51 a murderous duet; a single deviation from the beat, a hundredth of a second’s pause coming out of a liquid twirl, and a baseball bat would explode against yoar head. In his professional career, this “Louisville Lip” won fifty-six of sixty-one fights, with thirty—seven knockouts. Nation of islam The day after he beat Liston, Clay announced publicly that he was a member of the N OI. Words cannot do justice to the firestorm this caused. Whatever disagreements one may have with the Nation of Islam, the fact that the heavyweight cham- pion of the world joined the organization of Malcolm X was enormously significant. The Olympic gold medalist had linked arms with a group that called white people “devils” and stood unapologetically for self-defense and racial separation. Not sur- prisingly, the power brokers of the Conservative, mobbed-up, corrupt fight world lost their minds. Famed scribe Jimmy Can-- non wrote, “The fight racket since its rotten beginnings has - been the red light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate." Apparently, he had forgotten the entire career of Jack 'J ohnson. Ali was attacked not only by Cannon and his ilk, but also by the “respectable” wing of the Civil Rights movement. NAACP ' executive secretary Roy Wilkins went so far as to say, “Cassius Clay may as well be an honorary member of the white citizen councils.” Ali’s response at this point was very defensive. He repeatedly said that his was a purely religious, not political, conversion. His defensiveness reflected the conservative per- spective of the N01, and the views he expressed were those of. the Nation: “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White peo- ple don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it. So what’s wrong with the Muslims? I’ve never been in jail. I’ve never been in court. I don’t join integration marches and I never hold a sign." j 62 O WHAT'S MY NAME. FOOL? But much like Malcolm X, who at the time was engineering a political break from the Nation, Clay-"to the anger of Elijah Muhammad-found it impossible to explain his religious worldview without speaking to the mass Black freedom strug- gle exploding outside the boxing ring. When it came to main- taining the religious nature of his conversion, he was his own worst enemy—claiming that his transformation had nothing to do with politics in one breath and then in the next saying, I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blown up. They get hit by the stones and chewed by dogs and then these crackers blow up a Negro Church. People are always telling me what a good exam ple I would be if I just wasn’t Muslim. I’ve heard over and over why couldn’t I just be more like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well- they are gone and the Black man’s condition is just the same ain’t it? We’re still catching hell. If the establishment press was outraged, the new genera- tion of activists was electrified. As civil rights leader Julian Bond reminisced, I remember when Ali joined the Nation. The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion that he would do it, that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America and be proud of it, sent a little thrill through you... He was able to tell white folks for us to go to hell; that I’m going to do it my way. For a brief time, the former Clay was known as Cassius X, until Elijah Muhammad gave him the name Muhammad Ali—a tremendous honor bestowed in an attempt to ensure that Ali would side with Elijah Muhammad in his split with Malcolm X. Ali proceeded to commit what he would later describe as his greatest mistake: turning his back on Malcolm X. But the inter- nal politics of the Nation were not what the powers that be and their media noticed. To them, the Islamic name change— something that no world class athlete had ever done before— i g E 1:. ankraynar Innv.142rrflyméMiWMMfiV-flflwammwi if; i g i; t RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE: MUHAMMAD ALI Q 53- was a sharp slap in the face. Almost overnight, calling the champ Ali or Clay indicated where one stood on civil rights, Black Power, and, eventually, the war in Vietnam. For years after the change, the New York Times’ editorial policy was to refer to Ali as Clay. This all took place against the backdrop of a Black freedom struggle that rolled from the South to the North. During the summer of 1964, there were 1,000 arrests of civil rights ac- tivists, thirty buildings bombed, and thirty-six churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan and their sympathizers. Also in 1964, the first urban uprisings and riots took place in the north- ern ghettoes. The politics of Black Power began to emerge, and Muhammad Ali became the critical symbol of this transfor- mation. As news anchor Bryant Gumbel said, “One of the rea- sons the civil rights movement went forward was that Black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that for many Black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.” A concrete sign of Ali’s early influence was seen in 1965, when Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SN CC) volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama launched an inde~ ' pendent political party. Their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Their bumper stickers and T—shirts featured the black sil...
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