If you have the courage of your conviction and act on it, people will love and respect you, even if they hate and scorn you at first.
More than anyone else in recent memory, Muhammad Ali epitomizes this truth. Ali spoke truth to power long before politicians turned the phrase into a cliché. In the Jim Crow South of the ‘60s, when lynching of Blacks were daily occurrences, Ali stood out for justice and dignity for his people, unafraid of losing his life, challenging White America to look into its soul and acknowledge its bigotry and racism. From “I am free to be what I want to be” to “I have seen the light and I am crowing,” Ali opened raw wounds in the American psyche, provoking anger and fury that in the end proved cathartic.
That he was also a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion seems, in retrospect, almost incidental to the enormous religious, social and political role he played outside the ring.
“The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” a new documentary (Director: Bill Siegel, Running Time: 1 hour, 34 minutes), examines Ali’s life in the context of a turbulent America in which segregation was the norm and Blacks were convinced that “The White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.”
The combination of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests in the mid ’60s shook America to its core. Drawn by the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, Ali had become a Muslim in 1964. Earlier, he had shocked the boxing world by defeating the “unbeatable” Sonny Liston.
Most Americans regarded Black Muslims as a cult, sinister and treacherous, bent on destroying their country. When Cassius Marcellus Clay publicly and proudly shed his “slave name” and became Muhammad Ali almost 50 years ago, Blacks had found their hero and racially-driven Whites, politicians and pundits their enemy. Even the TV talk-show host David Susskind, considered a liberal, labelled Ali in 1968 “a disgrace, a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
The documentary pulls no punches. Stokey Carmichael of the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam (who later split from Elijah Muhammad and was assassinated in 1965) gave Ali the framework he needed to articulate his bitterness against racist America. He defended Islam as the “slave-breaking” religion. When the draft board reclassified him as eligible for military service in 1967 and ordered him to join the Army, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector because of his Muslim beliefs. Overnight, he became a traitor for refusing any role in America’s war machine. He was convicted but Ali never wavered. His logic was as powerful as it was simple: Why should I travel thousands of miles to kill brown and black people who never harmed me or my people for a government that continues to oppress and kill my people, he demanded to know. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously declared. When an army brass kept calling him Cassius Clay during a hearing, he politely but firmly kept telling him, “It’s Muhammad Ali, sir,” until his interlocutor obliged.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction on technical grounds.
“I am no slave,” Ali is quoted in the documentary more than once. “Don’t call me by my slave name.” When boxers Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him Clay, Ali punished them so viciously in the ring that the New York Times writer Robert Lipsyte called the Terrell fight “a truly terrible moment in boxing history.”
In this young 21st century, history seems to be repeating itself. America now finds itself as polarized as it was during the ‘60s. The sacrifices that African-Americans made has no doubt led to much racial progress, but the toxic social forces that Ali and others fought against seem to have reappeared, although in subtler forms. Wealth inequality is the new Jim Crow, the rise of Tea Party ideologues the new racial reality. We need brash and bold “loudmouths” like Ali, be they white, black, brown or any shade in between, to demand just and legitimate distribution of wealth and opportunities, in the absence of which American society is bound to permanently fracture.
Ali has been silenced and immobilized by Parkinson’s disease. People who see him now cannot bear to look at him a second time. Yet his legacy endures and inspires. There have been several excellent documentaries on his life and boxing career, including (1996) “When We Were King” and “Muhammad Ali: The Whole Story.” But in “The Trials of Muhammad Ali,” Bill Siegel has woven a complex and fascinating story that is at once bracing and disturbing, a story that is worthy of the subject whose essence it tries to capture and largely succeeds.
Hana Ali, the third-youngest of Ali’s nine children and by all accounts closest to him of her siblings, calls her father in the documentary “the eighth wonder of the world.”
How true, how so very true!
Hasan Zillur Rahim is an educator and a technologist working in Silicon Valley. He specializes in advancing education through technology.