Douglas Bastard's Rants of Rage


This article was written on 06 Jun 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Muhammad Ali: radical and true

I went to Meeting for Worship yesterday, which isn’t too surprising as I’m vaguely trying to be a Quaker or live a more Quakerly life. If you’ve never been, it’s wholly quiet but anyone who feels prompted to do so can speak about whatever they want. Nobody leads you or directs you so you’re wholly free, as the Quakers would say, to follow the promptings of the Spirit. Right now, I’m ploughing through Luke’s gospel with all the grace of a rudderless tramp steamer and found the following passage, which made me think about Muhammad Ali.

This passage is where Jesus is speaking directly to a group of lawyers. He says: “Woe too you! For your build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs.”

On first reading, it doesn’t look as though it has any more relevance to Muhammad Ali than a pickled gherkin, but it’s what happens when you think about how Ali was treated during his life that makes it more relevant in the nagging, insistent way that parts of the Bible are clearly just as relevant today as when they were first committed to paper.

Ali was hated during his life. Being a black man who boasted of his sporting prowess was not universally popular and nor was his style of boxing. The swift jabs, the retreat and the rapid fire to-and-fro of his feet, known as ‘the Ali shuffle’ seemed to mock the boxers who faced him and to take lightly the history of the sport. Here was someone who didn’t stand and fight, but who danced airily around the ring, closed in, dealt a blow and then danced away again. White America hated him so much that it was prepared to take Sonny Liston, a hard-hitting reform school graduate who had found himself the plaything of the Mob, as its champion.

When they fought for the heavyweight crown and Liston’s corner tried to blind Ali by rubbing a caustic solution on Liston’s gloves, Ali survived and, in one of the most memorable fights in history, beat a baffled Liston who refused to come out and fight. It’s hard, given the distance in time and popular memory, to understand just how much Ali’s win appalled people, much the same people, perhaps, as the ‘silent majority’ of dyed-in-the-wool conservatives who swept Nixon to power later in the sixties, but they hated him.

A rematch was arranged, when Liston either took a dive or was felled by a killer blow. Either way, America had a champion who was a black Muslim and espoused rhetoric that allied him with Malcolm X, rather than the more thoughtful, considered and non-violent rhetoric of Martin Luther King and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When Ali was drafted and refused to fight in Vietnam because it was not his fight, white America thought that it had got him. Everyone spoke up in condemnation, jail sentences were called for and the ensuing clamour cost Ali the peak years of a career which should have seen him cross to sporting greatness.

But Ali held true and, when he came out of enforced retirement, took the heavyweight crown again when he beat George Foreman in the so-called ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ And that’s where the boxing history lesson stops, because his career to that point vindicated that passage from Luke. Sundry people, from sports writers to TV pundits and sundry others had tried to kill Ali in name only, if not in actual fact. Acres of newsprint had called down as much punishment onto Ali’s head as the state could mete out, but it had poured down over their shoulders.

Now, their heirs want to build him a tomb that looks rich and lavish and forget what had gone before. Well, I’m sorry, but no. As someone who aspires to follow the Quaker way, I believe that all religions are expressions of the same universal truth, of the same universal love, and I’m as open to learning from a Muslim as a Hindu and, for that matter, am wholly willing to listen to an atheist or an agnostic who is speaking truth. That means that Ali, when he avoided the most violent rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, was clearly speaking truth. The gilding of the tomb neither makes me forget that or blinds me to the fact that, when that truth was being articulated, it was the media who most abhorred it and who wanted people to see Ali as something alien, as a threat to our way of life. And I firmly believe that they would do so now if they could get away with it.

One generation’s revolutionary is another’s cosy elder statesman and that, with the media’s mealy-mouthed hyperbole, is what they want Ali to become. Again, I say no. Ali was revolutionary then and, in a time when Muslims are being traduced and living in fear, is revolutionary now. His message about empires was revolutionary then, and in a time when America still disavows the children who were born deformed by Agent Orange and when people still defend the British Empire, is revolutionary now. And his message about black liberation was revolutionary then, and when black people are being gunned down in the street by police, is revolutionary now.

So to the media who wanted to kill him and to their descendants who built his tomb, I have this to say. You will never, ever, muzzle the revolution that walked in every footstep of Muhammad Ali’s rhetoric. He was the people’s champion, the people’s hero, because he spoke the people’s truth. And that’s something no number of fawning obituaries will ever erase.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.