“I don’t have to be..what you want me to be.”
After Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweighht title, reports were confirmed that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and would now be known and referred to as Muhammad Ali.
Despite winning the heavyweight championship hours prior and rejuvenating his sport, not everyone was receptive to Ali’s faith, name or wishes.
Prior to the rise of the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam (many Whites and media referred to the as the Black Muslims) was the voice for Black men and women who wanted to gain knowledge of self and seek spiritual empowerment. The philosophy of the N.O.I. was a sharp contrast to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – an advocate for non-violence and racial equality. Minister Elijah Muhammad was the leader of the N.O.I. and his message was simple; return the Black man, woman and child to their rightful place without any involvement with or from White race. Elijah Muhammad preached separatism and knowledge of self, but was considered a prophet of hate by those too ignorant to study his teachings. Funny how the Nation’s teachings were condemned but Jim Crow had existed in the United States legally for close to 100 years. The face of the Nation was Minister Malcolm X who recruited a young Cassius Clay and taught him the ways of Islam. At the time of Clay’s conversion, Malcolm was serving a period of silence ordered by Elijah Muhammad for derogatory comments in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (The “Chickens coming home to roost” quote) .
“I was forced to make a choice when Elijah Muhammad asked me to break with Malcolm. Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I had been able to tell Malcolm that I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance.”
Within a year of winning the heavyweight title, Malcolm X was be assassinated and Ali would retain his title in a “controversial” rematch with Liston. If life didn’t seem complicated enough for Ali, this was only the beginning.
Ali was light years away from the path forged out for Black athletes in White America - the fact that he held the world heavyweight championship elevated his platform to express his views and outrage on racial inequality – having the Nation at his back didn’t hurt either.
“What is all of the commotion about? Nobody asks other boxers about their religion. But now that I’m the champion, I am the king, so it seems that the world is all shook up about what I believe. You call it the Black Muslims, I don’t. This is the name that has been given to us by the press. The real name is Islam. That means “peace.”
Ali’s conversion was sure to ruffle the feathers of those in the predominantly White media as well as White athletes themselves – but when some Black athletes began to speak out against his conversion and ignore his request to be addressed as Muhammad Ali you could see the vice grip that the slave mentality still had on some of our people.
Ali would show Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell and the rest of the world exactly what happens when you spit at the throne.
Just as Ali predicted which round he would defeat his opposition - two of his opponents took the liberty of calling Ali by his slave name of Clay. Floyd Patterson would go as far as to call the Nation of Islam a “menace” before he was humiliated and mocked by Ali in their 1965 bout. Two years later Ernie Terrell made the same gaffe and later stated that he had not grown used to calling Ali by his new name. Ali would again win on a lopsided scorecard in a fight which he punished Terrell bell to bell.
“God don’t want me to go down for standing up.”
The plight of the Black athlete in America runs an even parallel to the Black experience in America. The slave master continues to run things from behind the scenes, while the mainstream media and fan bases serve as the lynch mob for those that feel they have escaped the plantation. In the end, the once promising careers and the lives of men and women who took those risks, are left in shambles.
In the early 20th Century, Jack Johnson became the first Black superstar of note - being heavyweight champion of the world was a huge deal in those days. Boxing was the NFL equivalent of sports in today’s society. Johnson was a free spirit who lived the lifestyle of a heavyweight champion. A “baller” by today’s standards, Johnson was a renaissance man who performed on stage and screen, raced fast cars and traveled the world. Johnson’s vice and the cause of his legal troubles was fast living and women particularly White women. Destroying the myth of a Great White Hope was one thing, consorting with his women was another. Johnson courted White women regularly and was not shy about being seen anywhere in the world with one on his hip – a definite taboo in the days of Jim Crow America. Johnson married three times – all of his wives were White. After his second marriage two ministers in the south recommended that Johnson be lynched. Johnson was even imprisoned for the crime of “transporting women across state lines for immoral acts” known as the Mann Act. (the woman who would become his second wife was allegedly a prostitute) Johnson would be persecuted relentlessly for his lifestyle until his death in 1946. When his third wife was asked why she loved Johnson so, she simply replied, “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.”
During Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany his Nazi ideology spoke of an Aryan “master race” that was as superior athletically as they were pure genetically. The 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany saw American sprinter Jesse Owens defy Hitler’s claims on his way to a four-gold medal performance. After the Olympics, Owens turned down amateur exhibitions in Sweden to pursue commercial deals back in the U.S. Angered U.S. Olympic officials removed Owens’ amateur status thus leaving him to pursue lucrative commercial deals.
Funny how those once -” lucrative deals” were no longer available to Owens. For the rest of his life Owens was plagued by financial troubles, including tax evasion and bankruptcy. At one point Owens ran against horses. After his dry cleaning business went belly up, Owens was thrown a bone by the United States Olympic Committee as he was named “U.S. goodwill ambassador. Owens did not support the salute given by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Owens told Smith and Carlos, “ The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.” Surely Owens was referring to his own financial struggles after Olympic glory. However, I wonder if Owens position at the USOC influenced his stance considering it was the most powerful image in the Olympic Games since Owens took the medal stand four times at the Berlin Games in 1936.
There is no greater tragedy in American sports than that of Joe Louis. No athlete has given more of himself to his country only to be bled dry. Unlike Johnson who preceded him, Louis was the first Black athlete to be looked upon as a national hero. “The Brown Bomber” was a victim of anti-Nazi sentiment before and during WWII. Louis’ loss at the hands of German Max Schmeling in 1936 solidified the German’s belief of Aryan superiority. In their 1938 rematch Louis was beckoned by practically everyone including President Frankin Roosevelt to defeat Schmeling (see Jesse Owens). The bout lasted two minutes and four seconds, Schmeling would only through two punches in the entire bout as Louis opened up with an unrelenting arsenal of punches. Schmeling was stopped by a body shot by Louis.
For the second time in as many years a Black Athlete was asked to hold his head high and walk as a proud symbol unconditional freedom in his country - until the crowds faded and the lights dimmed. Louis did it in the ring and abroad as he traveled to provide a morale boost to the troops that served the United States during the second World War.
Every dime that Louis earned, was donated to the military effort.
Until his death in 1981 Louis lived a life beneath that of an “American Hero”, financially broken by the IRS, Louis’ latter years were spent as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Louis received gracious donations from Frank Sinatra, Frank Lucas and an unlikely friend in Max Schmeling who aided Louis during his retirement. Ali who lashed out at Louis in the 1960′s (Ali would later apologize personally to Louis) summed up the feelings of many when Louis passed, “Howard Hughes dies, with all his billions, not a tear. Joe Louis, everybody cried.”
Fritz Pollard, Marion Motley, Jackie Robinson – later there would be Bill Russel, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Dr. Harry Edwards, Dick Allen, Curt Flood and today Barry Bonds. Athletes who have either dealt with racism in their respective sport or had their careers taken away when they chose to stand for the Black cause.
In the midst of these and other stories of the like - the most famous was written.
“If I thought that the war would bring freedom and equality to 12 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow.”
“They wanted me for their Army or whateva – picture me givin’ a damn, I said neva.” – Chuck D – ‘Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos’
In 1964 Muhammad Ali had failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test, in 1966 the test was revised and Ali was considered eligible to be drafted into the U.S. Army. Funny that military officials would even worry about Ali taking the test, considering the government was losing its grip on the situation in Vietnam. When this was brought to Ali’s attention he made it clear that would refuse induction and would do so as a conscientious objector. On April 28, 1967 Ali refused to step forward three times when his name was called to be sworn in, a crime punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. At that moment Ali was arrested. Subsequently, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other sanctioning bodies would later follow suit.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”
Round 3 next week.