I am going to write about Muhammad Ali today. And I won’t come close to doing justice to the man, his history or his legacy. I’m not sure anyone can.
But let’s get a few things out of the way, in an attempt to at least attempt to gaze at the scope of his life and legacy:
This is a man who grew up in the American south in the 1940s and 50s, Jim Crow America, an era of American apartheid. And then in 2005 he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by President Bush.
This is a man who won a gold medal for his country in 1960, then threw it in a river as an act of protest. And in 1996 he was asked to represent his country and the world, and light the torch during the Opening Ceremony for the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
This is a man who refused to be drafted in the US Army, gave up his heavyweight title and went into professional exile, and by the end of his life was undeniably the most famous person in the world.
And this is a man who spoke about race and racism in America, in plain, honest, stark language, was vilified at the time by many, but by the end of his life was revered by people of all races. He was truly post-racial.
And he was a pretty good athlete too, three times the heavyweight champion of the world, back when the sport of boxing was huge, and the title actually meant something significant. How many of you can even name the heavyweight champion of the world right now? I know I cannot.
I can’t do this man justice. But I still feel the need to share a few words and thoughts about him. Because what catches my attention and fascination is the stark contrast of how he, or rather our perceptions of him, evolved dramatically over time. Can you imagine a person today, in our hyper-polarized, outrage-obsessed country, being able to talk about race and racism the way he did… and then be revered by people of all races? Can you imagine a US Olympian being able to throw his gold medal in a river in protest, and then later in life being asked to light the torch at an opening ceremony? How does that happen? There are many answers to these complicated questions, but here is my answer.
Muhammad Ali represented a different way of doing things, a different way of making a point. He never shrank from the hard issues. When he gave up his birth name “Cassius Clay” he was ridding himself of his “slave name”… direct quote. He tackled hard issues, head on. But from my seat here in 2016, Mr. Ali always seemed able to handle hard issues with dignity, humor, and without declaring verbal war on the people and institutions he was fighting. There is no way I can prove this to you… it is only my conjecture. But as I study him, he always seemed able to make an important point without making it a personal attack. Find me someone who does that well today. Every serious issue that gets discussed in America today seems to degrade into name-calling and personal attack, starting with our national leaders and would-be leaders.
Anyway… whenever we lose a great figure, it is always an opportunity to reflect on what we have really lost, in addition to the person. We lose what they represent as much as we lose the person. And Mr. Ali, at least for this writer, was a voice for equality and dignity for all people. He used the bully pulpit of his fame to take a stand on important issues, but did so in a way that ensured that his point would never get lost and always be heard.
There is no way I can do justice to the man or his legacy. I am not sure anyone can. But it was worth a try.
Have a great day.