This is some of what Muhammad Ali said when he was stripped of his boxing license in 1967 for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War:
“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”
Two days ago, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74. In response, there has been what seems like an outpouring of response. We have been reminded that Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes, in any sport, of all time. He is on a short list of people who are recognizable worldwide. His heyday came before I was born, but he seems like he was a whirlwind of the fight world, trash talking, race relations, media savvy, and the Vietnam War. He was in his prime verbally, and physically, unstoppable.
There has been a lot of appreciation shown on social media, and while I avoid TV news like the plague that it is, I’m sure a death like his causes a huge amount of discussion. For me personally, Muhammad Ali is more recognizable than Prince, for example, or David Bowie, two other famous people who have died this year. I know more about Ali’s fights and life than I do about Prince’s or Bowie’s. I know enough about his life to call my fellow white people on our collective amnesia. We are still Muhammad Ali’s opposers.
We still send the poor, and people of color, halfway across the world to kill other poor people of color. Or, thirty thousand times and counting, we just send a drone and a missile. We don’t verify whom we kill, and the vast majority of the people we kill are civilians, and we kill them as part of an unending, unwinnable, undeclared war, but we didn’t care in 1967 and we don’t care now. We still oppose those who want freedom. We still oppose those who call for justice. We still oppose people who want equality.
Imagine 22 year-old Cassius Clay in 2016. Brash, angry, cocky, newly become the heavyweight champion of the world. Possibly the greatest trash-talker ever to compete in any sport. It comes out after his heavyweight championship bout that he has been radicalized, that he has joined a Muslim sect that promotes racial separation and violent self-defense when necessary. He says we shouldn’t be fighting ISIS because people of color need to be fighting the justice system and the political system and the police right here at home. He is unapologetic, and embarrasses anyone who tries to trade words with him. He goes on cable news shows and morning shows, and he talks circles around flabbergasted white hosts who stammer and try to make a point about personal responsibility or why all lives matter. He talks poetry, and shuts them down, and they go to a commercial.
You really think 22 year-old Muhammad Ali would be a hero in 2016?
Muhammad Ali would be like parts of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Ta-Nahesi Coates all rolled into one and multiplied by Lebron James, Floyd Mayweather and Ronda Rousey. I don’t even know how to list names of people who could be combined to be like Ali. There is no one like him now, and there was no one like him in his prime either. But he would be hated and feared at least as much as he might be appreciated, now as he was then.
On the news, he would be described as a radical, a terrorist sympathizer, and a thug. He would be the example that white conservatives would point to as they clutch their pearls decry the failure of black families and black culture.
He would make white liberals cringe with the things he’d say about LGBTQ folks, and other civil rights voices would be a lot more popular and easy to talk about. There would be think pieces published about whether he was going too far in what he said.
Anne Coulter would publish a book, Once We Go Black, talking about how Obama has ushered in an age of the radicalization of young black men who are taking ‘our’ country away from ‘us’, and Muhammad Ali would be a core illustration. The book would be her best-selling one yet.
Bill Maher would have Sam Harris on his show again, to talk about how horrible Islam is, and especially how awful the Nation of Islam is, and how unfortunate it is that such an eloquent athlete has been taken in by the “motherlode of bad ideas.” They’d be called Islamophobes by some, but no one would speak up and support Muhammad Ali specifically, or the Nation of Islam.
College campuses would ban Muhammad Ali, and venues would avoid bringing him in as a speaker because of the protests he would provoke.
You know Muhammad Ali would be on the no-fly list, and the NSA would be listening to all of his conversations very closely.
No one seems to know what to do with Donald Drumpf – but Donald Drumpf is a vapid, mouth-breathing stuffed suit compared to Ali. Drumpf goes off-script and he sounds like a brain-injured middle-schooler. Ali rewrote the script for everyone around him.
This is the thing: maybe Muhammad Ali was a hero. (I honestly don’t know – he said some amazing things, and some awful things too) If he was a hero, though, then in the story where he is the hero, we are still the villains. We are still the opposers, even if we look at civil rights alone. We still love to praise celebrities of color without doing the hard work of changing our society so that people of color flourish. And I think that if we celebrate his life and legacy without acknowledging our opposition, then we are simply the posers.