An Encounter with Muhammad Ali

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Photograph courtesy of Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989. Distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.


“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?

“No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.

“But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…

“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

— Muhammad Ali

Puglia, Italy.

The death of Muhammad All has led to an international flood of memories registering a near-universal love and respect for one of the truly titanic personalities of contemporary world history. This is especially the case for the oppressed and exploited overwhelming majority of humanity who sensed in Ali a kindred soul. This outpouring is so stunning that it obviously transcends Ali’s incredible talents and skills in the ring where he was arguably the greatest boxer in world history.

It must be said upfront that much of the praise coming from “statesmen” and other representatives of “respectable” society oozes with bourgeois hypocrisy. President Barack Obama, for example, in his quickly issued statement, could not bring himself to mention directly Ali’s heroic opposition to the Vietnam War that was waged for over a decade by the United States government against the peoples and national liberation struggles in Vietnam and Indochina. As the quote opening this article makes clear Ali minced no words in his opposition to Washington’s genocidal war of aggression.A war of extraordinary brutality and violence that killed millions and laid waste to the land. Ali backed his eloquent words with deeds when he refused induction into the US Army in 1967, linking US aggression against Vietnam to racist oppression of Blacks at home. Ali’s stance was not that of some mealy-mouthed opportunist capitalist politician weighing and calculating each word or phrase, obfuscating and diverting, even becoming “doves” as they saw domestic opposition to the war mounting. In that patented, if eventually shopworn, phrase of the 1960s, Ali chose to “tell it like it is.”

In short, unlike the Obamas, Clintons, and Trumps of then and now, Muhammad Ali had guts. And it took real guts to do what he did, when he did it. His denunciation of the war was sharp, clear, unequivocal, uncompromising, and radical. Not some abstract opposition to war or violence in general, but openly identifying with and on the side of the victims of US aggression and their struggle for national independence and liberation. “I got nothing against them Viet Cong,” Ali declared, followed up with his utterly devastating statement, “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.”

What Ali said and what he did was such a sensation, such a challenge to the US rulers and their war – he was the amazing, popular heavyweight boxing champion of the world! – that his heroic, self-sacrificing stand became, in truth, a seminal moment in the unfolding transformation of anti-war sentiment in the US from a courageous activist minority to the majority. As a result, Ali was targeted across the entire spectrum of ruling-class opinion – and their flunkies and lackeys in the big-business media – who united in their vilification and demonization of Muhammad Ali.

Typical of the anti-Ali assault were the words of legendary sports columnist Red Smith writing in The New York Herald Tribune: “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” (Martin Luther King came under similar bashing and demonization from liberal and conservative media attack dogs when he denounced the Vietnam War from the podium of the prestigious Riverside Church in New York in October 1967.)

In his final years, as he suffered from a debilitating illness, the very same Establishment who scorned and slandered him when he took his stand against the Vietnam War, showered him with awards and medals and honors. Ali generally steered clear of political controversy in the last decades of his life, after the decline and disintegration of the Nation of Islam (NOI) that he had identified with, and which exploited his fame and popularity for the narrow interests of its corrupt hierarchy.

The US rulers not only stripped him of his heavyweight title in the prime of his career. They tried to railroad him into prison as an example to anyone else, especially in the rebellious Black ghettos, who dared to protest Washington’s vicious war in Indochina. But they failed miserably as the Black masses, the radicalized youth, and eventually public opinion as a whole, sided with Ali and came to see him as a hero. Eventually the US Supreme Court, in this context, ruled in his favor in 1970. He regained his status and, eventually, his title. They temporarily stole his title but never his pride and dignity. They rained their blows on him like George Foreman in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) in the classic “Rumble in the Jungle” 1974 heavyweight title fight. But Ali took all their increasingly feeble and impotent punches and wore them out – just like he did against Foreman with his “rope-a-dope” strategy. And when the time was ripe he knocked them out cold.

My Unforgettable Encounter With Ali

I was not a big boxing fan as a youth, preferring baseball, basketball, and football, but I loved Cassius Clay and that love grew stronger as he became Muhammad All. I never missed a fight on TV or radio from his defeats of Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson on. In the early to mid-1960s, that is before pay-for-view TV, I remember listening to early Clay and Ali fights on my little transistor radio. I paced the floor of my bedroom while the skilled ringside broadcasters gave the blow-by-blow. I rooted enthusiastically for Ali and waited for each match with nervous anticipation. I followed with rapt attention all the pre-fight show biz psychological warfare and the “spells” Ali put on his hapless opponents. The establishment hated Ali and put the more palatable and “moderate” Floyd Patterson on a pedestal against the outspoken, “militant” Ali. But of course even his worst detractors could not deny, or get around, the power, skill, and artistry of Ali in the ring. He simply was The Greatest.

Ali’s brash persona was to me a spit-in-the-eye to the racist white establishment. This was a proud Black man, the opposite of the servility and even “gratitude” they expected and demanded from those anointed Blacks who were deemed “a credit to their race.” Ali overturned that patronizing paradigm forever.

What the establishment called arrogant braggadocio, I saw as dignity, humor, and a way with words that was just beautiful to me. His “attitude” captured what endless millions of young (and not so young) people were feeling in those tumultuous times.

When he spoke out against the Vietnam War and then refused induction into the US Army, refusing to allow himself to be drafted to fight in that horrible, dirty imperialist war, Ali became a powerful voice exposing for a new generation the criminal character of the liberal and conservative US ruling class. I had already begun to oppose the Vietnam War with all my heart and mind and Ali became a hero to me.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

Nevertheless I developed a major beef with this hero of mine because of his tragic relationship – actually I saw it as a betrayal of the highest order – with Malcolm X. Malcolm X recruited Cassius Clay to the Nation of Islam (NOI) at the very time Malcolm was on his way out of the organization for mounting political reasons spurred on by Malcolm’s disgust at a sordid sex scandal registering the corruption enveloping Elijah Muhammad and the NOI hierarchy. (see my essay To the Memory of Malcolm X: Fifty Years After His Assassination at july26coalition.org) Ali not only stayed with Elijah Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan but did not speak out against the vicious attacks on Malcolm that led eventually to his murder by NOI operatives, with the manipulation and indirect encouragement and dirty tricks of the US government.

Ali later called his cowardly betrayal of Malcolm the greatest mistake and regret of his life and spoke eloquently and honestly about it in his later years after he himself split with the NOI. After Elijah Muhammad’s death, the NOI was taken over and run under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan.

Looking back in anguish Ali wrote, “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary ahead of us all…I might never have become a Muslim if it hadn’t been for Malcolm. If I could go back and do it over again, I would never have turned my back on him.”

I became drawn to the person and politics of Malcolm X in 1967-68 and began to devour tapes and LP’s of his masterful speeches and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I found books compiling his interviews, press conferences, essays, and so on. I became aware of, and was appalled by, Ali’s public stance against Malcolm although I was, of course, unaware of his inner turmoil. In any case, I had no hesitation over where I stood, despite my admiration for Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War and the unjust vilification of him for it.

Ali Comes to Bloomington

In 1969 I began my freshman year at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Indiana, as the Black liberation movement exploded across the United States. Black GIs were at the forefront of soldier rebellions in Vietnam and at army bases across the US; Black ghetto rebellions multiplied after the assassination of Martin Luther King; the Black Panther Party grew massively. General opposition to the Vietnam War boiled over into perhaps the greatest mass people’s movement in US history, unprecedentedly against a shooting war while it was going on. This was rather unique. Historically, opposition to colonial and imperialist wars in pacifist and “peace” circles often existed in relatively large scales before the wars began and generally evaporated when the actual shooting began – and the patriotic hoopla and pressure to conform intensified. Vietnam was different. There was a radical minority that did not surrender and capitulate despite the initial pressure from the patriotic flag-wavers who claimed – with some validity at first – to represent the majority. That minority by 1968-69 was becoming the majority.

By 1969 Ali had been stripped of his title for over two years and was supporting himself largely by doing a lot of speaking on college campuses where he was generally met with huge and friendly crowds of students, Black and white.

I believe Ali came to Bloomington in 1970 or 1971. IU was at the time, like every campus in the so-called Big Ten in the Midwest, just like our counterparts in the East and West, if less so in the Deep South, a hotbed of anti-war and radical sentiment. Although the college was at most 3% African-American at the time, a member of the Black Panther Party, Keith Parker, was elected Student Body President in an election where thousands of students voted. I was elected Student Senator several times running as an open socialist-communist with images of Che Guevara and Malcolm X adorning my campaign literature. I was the Chairperson of the largest by far antiwar organization on campus, the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and was seriously committed to building a mass antiwar movement through legal and peaceful means, as well as supporting the increasingly militant Black rights struggle.

Following the US invasion of Cambodia mass campus protests exploded across the country. The subsequent murders of antiwar students by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio and by police at the historically Black Jackson State University in Mississippi led to the massive national expansion of protests forcing President Richard Nixon to end the invasion in an ignominious retreat. IU students staged a general strike that shut down the 30,000-strong campus completely.

Ali’s visit generated great enthusiasm on campus. But at the time I still had residual anger at Ali over his betrayal of Malcolm X. I attended the event with thousands of students who packed the major campus auditorium to see and hear Ali. I was there officially as a reporter for the radical student paper The Spectator. There was a Q&A after Ali’s speech and somehow I managed to get called on. My question-comment began with a statement of solidarity with his anti-war stance, but quickly, and to Ali’s visible discomfort, challenged him sharply over his stance and attacks on Malcolm X. There was scattered applause from some Black and other radical students, but mostly uncomfortable silence from the huge crowd. I don’t remember the content exactly of Ali’s response, only that he deflected the question rather skillfully and the event moved on. Afterwards I went up to him as he was surrounded by so many students trying to shake his hand and maybe get an autograph. We made eye content as I approached. At the time I had a full, thick head of very curly and very long hair going straight up in sort of a cross between Bob Dylan and Angela Davis (I called it my “Jewfro”) and a Middle Eastern complexion that led to some confusion (which I sort of encouraged up to a point) on the part of folks as to what my nationality or “ethnicity” was exactly. (My first college dorm mate, from a small Indiana farm town, who was a very nice guy, thought I was Black for several days. When I was bussing my food tray after my first day eating lunch at the dorm cafeteria with my hippie friends, I was confronted by a Black women student on the line who asked me if I was “trying to pass.”)

Ali of course was a giant of a man, 6’6 with an awesome physical presence. I was a scrawny, skinny kid in blue jeans and some radical t-shirt (in my defense I was a pretty good basketball player). Ali put his huge arm around my shoulder, turned and looked me straight in the eye and said, with a twinkle in his eye and a somber tone, “I understand your question brother, but there’s some things I just can’t talk about.” I was just awestruck and speechless. It is a moment I will never forget and will cherish forever.

For your skill. For your courage and dignity. For your brilliance and humor. For your humanity. Rest in peace Muhammad Ali.


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Ike Nahem lives in Italy.

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