Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Gerald Early on Ali’s Missed Opportunity

I spoke to an audience of Washington University alumni last December at the new Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, one of the most impressive monuments ever built to the memory of an athlete, living or dead. It would have been hard to imagine in the 1960’s that Louisville would ever do such a thing for Ali. But as time has passed, Louisville must have come to the realization that, at least as a tourist attraction, Ali is their most famous and highly regarded native. And I suppose that many have come to love him there, as elsewhere, or at least to not hate him. He is a Muslim to boot, and we need to be nice to Islam these days in our war for hearts and minds in the Middle East.

It may have seemed odd at such a shrine to Ali’s transcendence that I told the gathering that as new generations come along and as we ourselves age, we’re likely to see serious revision about the meaning and significance of Ali. My daughters, for instance, both in their 20’s, find old footage of Ali amusing but cannot understand what the big fuss was about. His fights mean nothing to them. Why were people so worked up about them? Why were they so transfixed by his trash talking? I have met several people who lived through the Ali era, who never liked boxing, and who, too, are mystified about why they were so consumed with the fights, why they thought Ali’s winning or losing meant so much. They speak of it now as if they had been in a trance or dream.

My daughters do respect his stance against the draft, but only in the light that Ali was a more honest and sincere draft dodger than Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others. He couldn’t duck into the National Guard and have a good chance of avoiding altogether going over to Vietnam (many state National Guards weren’t even integrated in the 1960’s); couldn’t hide out in college and get student deferments (he was too poorly educated and boxing was not a college scholarship sport); and couldn’t run off to Canada (he loved living in America too much to do that).

As a noted military historian once told me, the Vietnam War draft was designed to protect from combat the people society most valued. One way of looking at this, as my daughters analyzed it, was that our country thought that Joe Namath, who was classified 4-F because of a bum knee but could still play football every Sunday, was more important than Muhammad Ali. Actor George Hamilton, then dating President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, was given a hardship deferment to support his socialite mother.

“It was unfair,” they declare with moral outrage, “Ali was just expressing openly what other people felt about that war.” But they still don’t think that his stance against the draft makes him very important. To them, the 1960’s as a whole seemed a sorry time. “He was just a silly, naive guy who was a fighter and a draft dodger,” they said.

To be fair, my prediction of revisionism last December was not all that visionary: Ali revisionism has already begun. Mark Kram’s “Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier,” published in 2001, was an important shot across the bow. In his book, Kram, who died in 2002, takes a highly critical view of Ali during the 1960’s, insisting Ali was neither hero nor race leader. Many of the people I know who are big fans of Ali, particularly those who grew up with the Louisville Lip, were outraged by the book and imputed all sorts of ulterior motives to Kram. The most common story I heard was that Kram had originally written a positive book about Ali, couldn’t get a publisher, and decided to make it negative to get it published.

Now comes Jack Cashill’s “Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King’s Dream.” Published late last month, “Sucker Punch” is the most thorough-going conservative revisionist view of Ali or, as Cashill puts it, the Ali myth, largely constructed by a white, liberal left cultural elite. Cashill condemns Ali for a whole host of sins: for having “knowingly betrayed Malcolm X”; for “publicly turning his back on his press secretary, Leon 4X Ameer,” which led directly to Ameer’s death; for not having quit the Nation of Islam or protested when its members executed family and friends of the Hanafi sect; for publicly degrading Joe Frazier, his chief nemesis, “along the crudest racial lines”; for being “an unapologetic sexist”; for being “an unabashed racist, calling for an American apartheid and the lynching of interracial couples as late as 1975”; and for rejecting “his country in its hour of need” and expressing “no regret at the fate of those millions we all abandoned.”

Cashill is right on virtually every point. Ali did all these things, and more. Cahill scores some other good points, especially in making the case of how the white left needed Ali. In the end, though, by virtue of its very critique of him, the book endorses rather then undermines Ali’s importance. And Ali’s dissent about Vietnam, no matter its motives, was important for a free society. His hero status is deserved for the most part, despite his considerable flaws.

But what’s important about Cashill’s book has as much to do with the author’s own story, threaded throughout the book: a lower-middle class white boy who grew up around blacks in Newark. His is the story of how New Deal liberalism’s black and white coalition broke apart over economic and social issues, Ali among them. Ali never rose above his divisive times, like Joe Louis did in the 30’s, or Floyd Patterson tried to do in the 50’s and 60’s. Ali was merely an emblem of them. That is Cashill’s view.

Cashill’s father was a police officer who lost his rank on the force when an Italian became mayor of Newark and chose only to reward other Italians, even though Cashill’s father had supported him. His father eventually committed suicide. He struggled in a home with a single mother and three siblings as his neighborhood grew blacker as the 60’s progressed and whites fled in a panic to the suburbs. Eventually he was the lone white kid on the basketball court. Crime increased, services deteriorated, and he faced greater hostility from the blacks around him. At first, he liked Ali, during his Cassius Clay days; but as Clay became more racially self-conscious, joining the the Nation of Islam and speaking more critically of the United States, Cashill grew to dislike him.

I grew up in Philadelphia and knew a number of urban ethnic whites like Cashill. (I exclude Jews from this grouping, as their interactions with blacks were and are very different.) They tended to work hard, keep neat homes, hold conservative views greatly influenced by the church, have philistine tastes, serve their country when called. They were also staunchly Democratic, for two reasons: they believed in unions and they believed in the common man getting a break. The Democrats stood for that.

When blacks began to push for their rights, these whites hated it intensely. They thought blacks were complaining, and the idea of complaining they found distasteful. They also thought that blacks wanted something special because they were black. When blacks had been seen just as other members of the working class, urban ethnic whites seemed to see a certain common cause with them: everyone was Democratic and proud of it. Once blacks became a special grievance group — a move the Democratic Party supported for a variety of reasons — white urban ethnics found them and the party unbearable. They particularly did not want to be blamed for blacks’ troubles, as Martin Luther King seemed to be doing when he held his 1966 march through white, working-class neighborhoods of Chicago. The violent reaction he got was very predictable. As a teenager at the time, I thought he was goofy to attempt what he did, showing that he did not understand the difference in the mind of the white southerner and the mind of the white urban ethnic.

I know many white urban ethnics who felt, in the end, that they paid for the civil rights movement by being made the goats for it. “Rich liberal WASPs could blame us as the bad racist guys who were against integration. But all the integration was falling on us, in our neighborhoods and schools. They didn’t worry much about it out where the rich people lived,” one white ethnic told me a few years ago.

Sports was a common ground between white urban ethnics and blacks, but Ali seemed to violate that, polarizing things as a way to sell himself and his fights. In the end, there is a certain elegiac, tragic sense to Cashill’s book, as if, sadly, Ali failed his moment. I think Ali’s failure truly wounded Cashill, truly disappointed him. In such a whirlwind as the 60’s, it would have been miraculous if it had been otherwise.

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