‘I Just Wanted to Be Free’: The Radical Reverberations of Muhammad Ali
Dave Zirzin, The Nation, June 4, 2016
Ali was shaped by his times. But his death should remind us that he also shaped them.
The reverberations. Not the rumbles, the reverberations. The death of Muhammad Ali will undoubtedly move people’s minds to his epic boxing matches against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, or there will be retrospectives about his epic “rumbles” against racism and war. But it’s the reverberations that we have to understand in order to see Muhammad Ali as what he remains: the most important athlete to ever live. It’s the reverberations that are our best defense against real-time efforts to pull out his political teeth and turn him into a harmless icon suitable for mass consumption.
When Dr. Martin Luther King came out against the war in Vietnam in 1967, he was criticized by the mainstream press and his own advisors who told him to not focus on “foreign” policy. But Dr. King forged ahead and to justify his new stand, said publicly, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all—black and brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression.”
When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he said that Muhammad Ali gave him hope that the walls would some day come tumbling down.
When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City, one of their demands was to “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” They called Ali “the warrior-saint of the Black Athlete’s Revolt.”
When Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama launched an independent political party in 1965, their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Beneath the jungle cat’s black silhouette was a slogan straight from the champ: “WE Are the Greatest.”
When Billie Jean King was aiming to win equal rights for women in sports, Muhammad Ali would say to her, “Billie Jean King! YOU ARE THE QUEEN!” She said that this made her feel brave in her own skin.
The question is why? Why was he able to create this kind of radical ripple? The short answer is that he stood up to the United States government… and emerged victorious. But it’s also more complicated that that.