On the eve of the Viet Nam War, Malcolm X declared, “[As] long as the white man sent you to Korea, you bled. He sent you to Germany, you bled. He sent you to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese, you bled. You bleed for white people. But when it comes time to seeing your own churches being bombed and little black girls being murdered, you haven’t got no blood. You bleed when the white man says bleed; you bite when the white man says bite and bark when the white man says bark.” (Malcolm X, Message to the Grassroots Nov. 10, 1963).That pattern began to change, however, during the Viet Nam War. On April 28, 1967, when heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was drafted. He provided a completely opposite example to that of Joe Louis the generation before. He refused induction.
In the 1960 Olympics, Ali had won the gold medal for the US in the light heavyweight division. However, upon his return he was treated like other African Americans in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, when, wearing his medal, he vainly attempted to eat at a downtown lunch counter. He would go on to win the world heavyweight championship on February 25, 1964 immediately after which he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and that his name was now Muhammad Ali. He had previously been known as Cassius Clay. (Thereafter he was often seen in the company of Malcolm X.) Already viewed by the press and public as a brash, loud upstart, this only intensified the animus against him. Nonetheless, Ali continued to brag about his prowess and defeat opponent after opponent.
Muhammad Ali’s refusal to join the army was a watershed moment for the consciousness of Black America. A prominent Black athlete, in fact, the most prominent Black athlete, the heavyweight champion of the world, was refusing to fight for his country. It encouraged the already shifting Black psyche further away from accomodation, inclusion and integration to nationalism, separation and Black Power.
Though the Black public had at first been wary of Muhammad Ali, their view of him had already begun to change starting around the time he fought Floyd Patterson. Ever since Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight champion in 1908, boxing fans were forever looking for a white contender to retake the crown. The most famous white boxer to do so was Rocky Marciano who defeated Joe Louis. (That is why Sylvester Stallone dubbed himself “Rocky” in the long running series of boxing films with a white champion.)
When Black former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson challenged Ali, Paterson proudly proclaimed himself the Christian fighter going against the Muslim champion, and pointedly referred to his opponent as “Cassius Clay,” refusing to call him by his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. The press and the public at once came out solidly for Patterson as if he were now an honorary “Great White Hope.” However, years earlier, when Patterson had fought Swedish boxer, Ingemar Johansson, press and public were then just as solidly for Johansson. None of this was lost on Black America. On November 22, 1965, Ali soundly defeated Patterson and continued facing, and vanquishing, a seemingly endless string of challengers.
When Ali refused to join the army in 1967, he was stripped of his title, banned from training in any boxing gym in America and threatened with jail. When the press asked Ali why he refused his induction, he replied, “No Viet Cong ever called me a N*****r.” For four years lawyers from the Nation of Islam fought Ali’s case in the courts, taking the matter all the way up to the Supreme Court where in 1971, the Court ruled in Ali’s favor. By then, much of the country had become disillusioned with the Viet Nam War and the anti-war movement was in full swing in college campuses, and even in high schools, all across the country.
In a sense Jack Johnson was just as much a revolutionary figure as Muhammad Ali. Yes, Ali refused to be drafted during the Viet Nam War, defying the government, the press and public opinion. And though stripped of his title and threatened with jail, he stood firmly by the courage of his convictions until the public, and the courts, came around to his point view. Jack Johnson, though, had the audacity to stand before huge crowds of savagely heckling, hate-filled white fans and mercilessly beat one white opponent after another during the height of Jim Crow, while in his private life he openly associated with white women for all the world to see.
When Joe Louis came on the scene, Jim Crow Law was still enforced. Thanks to radio, though, all Black America followed his fights blow-by-blow, vicariously defeating each Great White Hope vainly attempting to take his crown. Louis, meanwhile, was careful to never let his picture be taken with a white woman. Ali went even further loudly proclaiming that Black is beautiful and that “no woman can please me or understand me like my Black American woman can,” as he went about resolutely retaining, and repeatedly regaining, his primacy in the ring.
Today the American press and public fondly embrace Ali as the elder statesman of boxing as if he was always this much endeared. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ali was a champion in every sense of the word, taking all comers in the ring and fighting fearlessly for what he believed and refusing to bend an inch. His close association with Malcolm X enhanced each man’s appeal to Black America and literally ignited the Black Power movement. . .
(by Arthur Lewin, www.AfricaUnlimited.com )