Muhammad Ali died yesterday and the tributes are pouring in. His greatest accomplishment may have been that he persuaded so many people (including me) to become fans of a brutal activity (I cannot call it sport) that should be despised out of existence. But even more than his boxing skills, what electrified people like me around the world who detested what the US was doing to Vietnam was what he said when he refused to be drafted to fight in that horrible war.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
“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? No I’m not going 10,000 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 cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is 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. 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.”
The very words that delighted us were that same ones that would outrage the American political establishment that needed people to believe that the US had noble intentions even as they were committing massive war crimes. They were determined to punish him for his audacity and jail him. He knew this and was willing to pay that price at the peak of his athletic abilities, something that few athletes have done.
Ali was not without his faults. I wrote ten years ago that he popularized the taunting and trash talking of opponents that I find highly distasteful and in his prime he could be cruel, especially the way he treated Joe Frazier, who by all accounts was an honorable man but, while a match for him in boxing skills, was completely outclassed by Ali in quick-wittedness, verbal skills, and showmanship.