So Muhammad Ali is dead. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of millions of people around the world will be saddened by this. It is certain that the passing of no other sporting figure now, or ever in history, would have evoked such a global response.
And let us remember this is not only or even primarily because he was such a beautiful and magnificent boxer but because of what he was as a human being and what he did as a human being. First and foremost it is that he stood up for his people – a people who had been brutally enslaved and oppressed for centuries – and he did so by refusing to play the role that ALL official American society and all the media and all the sporting authorities assigned to black sportsmen, the role of the silent acquiescent ‘good negro’, the role that even figures as great as Joe Louis and Jesse Owens had accepted as the price of survival in racist America. And in making this great refusal – in being what he wanted to be and saying what he wanted to say – he was led to take a heroic stand against the Vietnam War – the main imperialist war being waged by the world’s main imperialist power- at the risk of everything that was most precious to him apart from his convictions. It was this alongside his prowess in the ring that made him such a hero and helped make him so courageous in the ring as well. His greatest boxing achievement was his defeat of George Foreman in 1974 but would he have been able to achieve that without the support of the African people and the reason they supported him was because he had stood up for them.
And let’s remember also that precisely what made him so great actually made him HATED by the establishment and the media at the time. When you hear the tributes from the Clintons and the other politicians and the hired pundits – apparently even Donald Trump has tweeted a perfunctory tribute (which is truly sickening) – know that 95% of them at the time when it counted most, in the sixties, the time of Civil Rights and Black Power, of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, 95% of them were rooting for the sad Floyd Patterson to reclaim the title for America and silence the Louisville Lip. This, of course, is a familiar story – look at Nelson Mandela or James Connolly. But as in those cases so with Ali it was the reaction of ordinary people the world over that forced the rulers and their agents, the hack journalists, to change their tune.
First published in Socialist Worker Online, 4 June 2016