Sports

How The Greatest shone a light on civil rights, and how it gave others courage

From Memphis, sports writer Ben Stanley reflects on the enduring social impact of Muhammad Ali, who died last week aged 74.

“I am America,” legendary boxer Muhammad Ali once declared.

It was 1970. He had been convicted evading the draft to serve in the Vietnam War, and was losing the prime years of his boxing career. Yet he stood defiant.

“I am the part you won’t recognise, but get used to me,” he continued. “Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”

President Barack Obama used those very famous lines from the world’s most quotable man in the official White House statement after his death on Friday afternoon NZT.

27th May 1963:  Supremely confident American boxer Cassius Clay holds up five fingers in a prediction of how many rounds it will take him to knock out British boxer Henry Cooper.  (Photo by Kent Gavin/Keystone/Getty Images)

Ahead of a fight with Henry Cooper in 1963, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) predicts how many rounds it will take him to win. Photo: Kent Gavin/Keystone/Getty

Ali was, and will forever be, The Greatest. A run down of his ability in the boxing ring isn’t needed, nor is an essay praising the style, loquaciousness and confidence of the most well-known, well-documented athlete that has ever lived.

Tributes have flowed. Some have been poetically penned by the world’s finest writers. Others have come from regular people, whose worlds were touched by Ali in the most simple, important human ways.

We already know that it is one of those ‘you’ll always remember where you were’ moments, like when Princess Di or Michael Jackson died – or when 9/11 happened.

I was in Memphis, standing in the airport with my sister and a Kiwi friend. It was close to midnight on Thursday night and we were waiting for my mate’s luggage when a television with CNN on flashed up the sad news.

I was born nearly two years after Ali’s last pro fight. My father wasn’t a big boxing fan, so I didn’t grow up watching old fights or have posters of him on my wall.

The Champ’s resonance with me only really began thanks to Mark Kram, my favourite sportswriter.

Kram, who mainly wrote for Sports Illustrated, penned one of the finest deadline features in sports-writing history – ‘Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great’ – as well as The Ghosts of Manilla, a book that serves as a paean to Ali’s great rivalry with Joe Frazier.

Anyone who even has a passing interest in boxing, sports journalism or American social history should read it.

Kram wrote about the real Ali, not the one that has been mythologized. Ali wasn’t always the humble hero, nor was he the world’s best bloke, husband or father. His treatment of the great Frazier – who he labeled a modern day Uncle Tom – was appalling.

Amongst the glorious prose in Ghosts, it was Ali’s easy empathy for others – and anger with the racial divisions in the America he grew up and lived in – that hit me.

The United States is a nation with deep racial rip-tides that pool and grip society in every which way it attempts to turn, or change. Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Republican presidential nomination is clear evidence of that.

Feeling race is something undeniable in the States, too. I felt it the first time I visited in 2011, and every time since. It is more powerful than anything I’d ever experienced in New Zealand, or anywhere else I’ve traveled.

Back home, race exists – but it’s harder to feel. We have our problems and things that need to be addressed, sure, but New Zealand is a strongly inclusive society compared to the US.

Here, the racial tension is unspoken, unaddressed. It is a weird gut-dropping feeling of distrust, hypocrisy, guilt and disappointment, particularly here in the South.

I’m staying in Memphis, which is majority African-American. I love the city dearly, but am confronted by that feeling often.

It was the city where Dr Martin Luther King was shot and killed in 1968. The National Civil Rights Museum now stands at the very spot – the Lorraine Motel – where the assassination occurred.

While figures like Dr King, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X were key figures in the Civil Rights Movement, so too was Ali.

He was an agent of change who used his very public profile for good; a man who made other Civil Rights leaders jealous of his following, but whom prominent activist Bob Moses said “galvanized the … Movement.”

“The Civil Rights era was all about the price you were willing to pay to get what you think you deserved,” Dr Russ Wigginton – a former African-American history professor at Memphis’ Rhodes College who also wrote The Strange Career of the Black Athlete: African Americans and Sports – told me this week.

“He was willing to give up the prime of his career to push the country to at least deal with, or recognize, that un-equity was the norm. No one else could have done it in as a unique a fashion as he did.”

A prominent Memphis voice on civil rights issues, Dr Wigginton also hails from Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, where the Champ will be buried on Saturday NZT.

Both of Dr Wigginton’s parents attended high school alongside Ali at Central High School; his father was in the same class as the future Greatest. Wigginton Jr. met the Champ as a 11-year-old, as Ali’s mother lived across the street from his uncle and aunt.

Ali’s youth in a racially segregated Louisville has been referred to and explored at length, and this week the New Yorker wrote that his learning of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in the 1956 was a turning point in his young life. It was fuel for a fire that would rage in him for decades.

By the time he beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, Ali had a profile and an undeniable athletic ability, only exaggerated by personality, that handed him the biggest loudspeaker money could buy.

So Ali started talking, and he wouldn’t shut up.

“You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality,” Ali said about his famed Draft stance, in 1967.

“You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”

Ali made people uncomfortable, because they had to feel uncomfortable for change; using his boxing skill and poetic candour to draw people in before delivering his knock-out message on race.

“What he did was distract you with all his notions of about how pretty he was, how fast he was and how smart he was,” Dr Wigginton says.

“That was to draw you in. But once he got you in, and got your attention, he talked about the welfare of others. That is the critical piece that can easily be over-looked [with Ali].”

Ali’s courage gave other African-American athletes the same to speak up. At the Cleveland Summit in 1967, twelve of the most well-known African-American sportsmen, including NFL legend Jim Brown and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, stood in support of Ali’s anti-Draft stance.

The famed ‘Black Power salute’ of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics may have never happened, nor the continued defiance of tennis player Arthur Ashe, if not for the confidence Ali had shown before them.

Even adjusting for scale, there are no Kiwi athletes who have showed the unrelenting conviction to shine a light on a social issue during their career that Ali did. Sir John Kirwan’s post-career depression awareness advocacy ranks the closest, perhaps.

Recent years have seen racial issues prominently bubble to the surface in the United States for the first time since the LA Riots. The reacting to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement show that.

American friends tell me the situation feels more urgent than it has for years, as does the demand from the African-American community for change.

alipapers

Unlike when Ali became the Champ in 1964, African-American athletes – think LeBron James, Steph Curry, Cam Newton and the Williams sisters – are amongst the most prominent sports stars in the United States.

There have been some statements of protest – such as James’ ‘I Can’t Breathe’ t-shirt, following the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD in 2014 – but there’s not been another Ali-like figure in American sport.

While the issues aren’t as clear-cut as legal segregation or the Vietnam War, they still remain. The reason why we don’t see more athletes speaking out against them, Dr Wigginton says, is the difficulty of articulating an argument in the modern media churn.

“[It’s] is going to have to be much more subtle, much more enlarged, and, in some ways, more sophisticated,” he says.

“I’m not sure there are that many people that have the skill, given that context, or who are willing to give up the kind of prominence, prestige and power that they have now.”

Change comes with sacrifice. Ali knew that, and never shied away from it.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” Ali once said.

Farewell, Champ – and thank you.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.