As usual, Joe Dunman’s summary is spot on. I’m old enough to remember Cassius Clay’s transformation into Muhammad Ali, the period of his “draft dodging,” and the denunciations of my dad’s crowd.
Naturally, these influenced me to take the boxer’s side.
There was no overt racism in our household; we had assumptions, implicit understandings and nods, but no use of the “N” word. My dad’s initial objections to Muhammad Ali probably had more to do with his own experiences in WWII than race or creed. Having volunteered for the Marines, he’d lost three years of a budding career in baseball. No one should be spared this cost … and so on.
Once my father came to see the reality of Vietnam, his opinion about Muhammad Ali dramatically changed. I doubt he ever spent too much time thinking about the black experience in America, or varieties of the Muslim faith, but the nature of just versus unjust wars was right in his wheelhouse. He instinctively sided with the underdog, and that’s admirable.
We didn’t always agree, and yet my old man deserves credit for being fair-minded. He turned down a few blind alleys, and wasn’t afraid to reverse course if the evidence supported it.
That’s an important quality.
… I had my own rebellious streak, only briefly toying with conservatism early in high school before punk rock and a distrust of authority irrevocably shifted my politics. As I re-examined the things I’d been taught, I read more about Ali and watched old footage of his fights and his interviews. What I saw was not cowardice, or selfishness, or brainwashing, or any of the other negative traits others had accused him of. I saw bravery, and principled defiance, and an ultimate rightness that could not be denied.
Ali was right about Vietnam, and he was right about the abuse of black people in America. He was a truly transformative character for his time, challenging every American’s perception of what a black athlete – the greatest, no doubt – was supposed to be and how one was supposed to act.
Rather than feel angry or ashamed, as many others in my community had, I became proud that Muhammad Ali was from Louisville. No city could ever be as lucky as ours to have been able to call such a man our own.