(Pictured: Muhammad Ali speaks to students at St. John’s University in 1971.)
I wasn’t going to write about Muhammad Ali. Others have more interesting things to say and will say them better. But I found myself thinking about growing up in the 70s while Ali was becoming the legend we lost last week. This post is off-topic in that it has nothing to do with music, but squarely on-topic in that it’s very much about the time to which this blog is forever returning.
Back in the days when hamburgers cost a dime and a family of four could eat for less than five bucks, when I was no more than five or six years old, we sat down in a fast-food restaurant, and at a table nearby was a black family.
I had never seen a real live black person before. There was a mother and father and a couple of kids about our age—in other words, a mirror image of us, except for the black part—and we watched them eat the way you’d watch a family of exotic animals in the wild. (I have tried to think of a kinder way to describe it, more than 50 years later, but it’s the only simile that fits.)
I will not tell you exactly what was said around our table as we watched, what my parents told us about black people, only that it was not said with malice; it was the kind of misinformation that came from having utterly no personal experience with them apart from hearsay. They didn’t know any black people, and I doubt they had ever met any, or even seen many, growing up as they did in the rural Midwest from the 30s to the 50s. Nevertheless, in that time, and in the 1960s I’m talking about here, lily-white Midwesterners casually threw around the words “darkie” and “nigger” (although my parents did not), and those words made clear that whoever such people were, they were not like us.
Because black people were not like us, when Muhammad Ali refused to report for induction into the military in 1967, and when he returned to boxing in 1970 and became famous once more for his outspokenness, he was not especially well-liked in my lily-white Midwestern world. I can’t remember what I thought, but March of 1971, many in my world rooted for quiet Joe Frazier to shut loudmouth Ali up. And even as Ali’s fame grew—and as we became more accustomed to flashy black athletes, and we granted greater respect to African Americans in general—there was still resistance to him. Watching him verbally spar with Howard Cosell on Wide World of Sports was entertaining, but it could be jarring at the same time. Nobody else talked like that. Nobody either black or white, but Ali’s blackness, because it was alien to so many, made his flamboyance seem especially outlandish. When he lost to Leon Spinks in February of 1978 (a rare fight that was on broadcast TV in prime time when we could see it), many people were happy the next morning that Spinks had shut loudmouth Ali up. He was the most famous man in the world, yes, but universally beloved, not yet.
Ali’s reputation, from the 60s to the 80s, was a more problematic thing than we like to remember. Not because of him—hindsight and the judgments of history have shown us that Ali was being the only man it was possible for him to be. It’s because of us, and how we thought about him and those like him.
I believe I am–and I hope that you are—kinder and wiser than we once were toward those whose experiences we do not, cannot share, those of other races, genders, and sexual orientations. Muhammad Ali’s uncompromising pursuit of what he needed to be helped show us how we needed to be. It was not his responsibility to earn our respect. It became our responsibility to give it to him.