Muhammad Ali 1968
Muhammad Ali told a news conference that there is a "crisis among black people because we have too many leaders," April 26,1968 in Madison, Wisconsin. Ali, flanked by followers including commandos from Milwaukee NCAA youth council, later told a student rally the black and white races must separate in America if there is to be peace. (AP Photo)
There are so many Muhammad Alis: the otherworldly boxer, the impossibly handsome wordsmith, and of course the icon. These are the Alis we search for on YouTube. These are the Alis who fill us with joy. These are the Alis we want.
But at this perilous moment, this is not the Ali we need. The one we need is the resistance icon of the late 1960s and early 1970s—the internationalist and unwavering opponent of white supremacy. We need the Ali who fearlessly connected the war at home and the war abroad.
We need the Ali who, when attending a rally for fair housing in his hometown of Louisville, said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? . . . I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
We need the Ali who, in the words of Bryant Gumbel, “refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.” We need the Ali who was represented at his funeral in Louisville last June, in a memorial service that turned out to be his last act of resistance.
The service itself was open to the public and packed with more than 20,000 people. The people who connected with the crowd weren’t the Senators and ex-Presidents. They were the firebrands. They were the people who spoke to Ali’s rebel spirit. At this funeral we saw, reanimated, the Ali of the 1960s. What made him so electric was that he took a side and, to paraphrase the poet Sonia Sanchez, made dissent beautiful and fearless.
That is what we need today. This is not a time to figure out how to bring a broken country together. This is a time to take a side and resist. That’s what Ali did. He didn’t say bring together those who hate Vietnam and those who love it. He said that we need to fight for justice.
That is also why San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stands in the best tradition of Ali. He has argued consistently saying don’t just “be political” or “use your voice” in the abstract, but stand for something real.
Kaepernick gets the historical connection to Muhammad Ali. He even wore an Ali T-shirt to a game, saying,
“What he did and what he stood for, people remember him more for that than they do as a boxer. I can’t let him die in vain; I have to try to carry that on and try to fight that same fight until we accomplish our goal.”
It’s no coincidence that one of the people advising Kaepernick is also someone who knew Muhammad Ali well, sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. I recently asked Edwards what Ali has to teach us.
“Ultimately, it’s not the odds that are against you, it’s the magnitude of your courage and the caliber of your commitment that should guide and drive your actions and perspectives,” he said. “Trump is wrong for America. Trump is wrong for the world. We have an obligation at every level to organize, to mobilize, to establish coalitions to fight this madness. We have an obligation to mobilize and to begin to organize against the impact of that on our communities, on our colleges and universities, on our lives. That is what Ali teaches us, irrespective of the personal and individual cost. Why? Because we have no option.”
As difficult as these times are, Ali reminds us just how attractive and effective “visible dissent” can be. Let’s be as visible as possible in the months and years ahead.