By Neal Gabler
There are many reasons to mourn Muhammad Ali and many accomplishments of his to eulogise. But the single largest of these may be how, through his one-man civil rights movement, he transformed the way Americans live. What Martin Luther King Jr. was to politics, Ali was to popular culture.
Historically, the two men stood shoulder to shoulder, fighting the same battle for equality on two different fronts but with the same powerful result. In their wakes, America is both different and better.
Ali’s contribution was an attitude that would become pervasive first in black America and then across large segments of the rest of America. It was predicated on violating the code of conduct that white America had long imposed on blacks. King used these rules against the oppressors. But Ali played the rascal. He mocked and flouted the rules, building a different kind of civil rights movement on the mockery.
Ali didn’t just confront white America; he danced around it, jabbing at it, just the way he jabbed at his opponents in the ring. White America didn’t know what to make of him. That was his triumph.
That Ali is now lionised is something of a miracle. With all the tributes pouring in, it is easy to lose sight of just how reviled he once was. When he first arrived on the national scene as Cassius Clay, after winning a gold medal in boxing at the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was considered a loudmouth, a braggart, a narcissist and a clown. He was the guy just about everyone in white America, at least, wanted to see get his comeuppance.
That was supposed to be heavyweight champion Sonny Liston’s job. Liston was Ali’s antithesis: huge, slow, ponderous, monosyllabic and humble. But also seemingly invincible. Of course, Ali beat him, with Liston deciding not to get off his stool after the sixth round. One old boxing sage said Liston had come to believe that Ali was certifiably insane, a lunatic and that you could never tell what a lunatic would do. So Liston decided to take his cut and go.
After the bout, the press reluctantly acknowledged Ali’s boxing skills. But the public hostility didn’t subside. In fact, it seemed to intensify with every new boast, with every subsequent victory, with his conversion to Islam and the concomitant name change to Muhammad Ali and with his decision to become a conscientious objector, refusing to fight in Vietnam. That definitely put him on the wrong side of white America.
Being a burr under the American saddle, however, seemed to be Ali’s objective. It would turn out to be a gift to the country as well. Other black athletes – and black entertainers too – had long been quiet and deferential. They knew their place because they had to.
Ali had a different attitude. He was a noisy self-proclaimed provocateur. Whites might call him “uppity.” Ali loved it. He revelled in being reviled. He often attributed his braggadocio to having watched the professional wrestler Gorgeous George, another preening celebrity whom the fans booed.
In understanding Ali’s enormous influence, it is important to note that he was finally revered because he was reviled. If most of white America detested him, black America and large swaths of young America saw in Ali a challenge to the old social order – especially the old racial order.
Defiant rather than deferential, Ali not only helped give voice, as King did, to a muscular black opposition; he helped create an entire culture out of his attitude. In doing so, he transformed “uppity” from a slur to a badge of honour.
It is not going too far to say that Ali invented hip-hop culture out of his defiance. When he did his famous “shuffle” in the ring, a rapid-fire back-and-forth with his legs, he was not only teasing opponents and undercutting the conventions of boxing, showing how easy his victories came. He was heralding what would later be break dancing, which also undercut conventions.
When he spouted his poetry, all of which celebrated himself, he was not only taunting the American establishment to hate him and showing that blacks could assert themselves in the middle of white America, he was also heralding rap music, which taunts and asserts black identity.
Yet for Ali, as for hip-hop, the culture he helped create wasn’t an expression of anger. It was an expression of a certain kind of smart-ass pride – an intelligence really, that was part and parcel of his boxing.
Because Ali wasn’t just a great fighter. He was a clever one – quick of mind as well as of fists. His “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Forman, in which he deployed the famous “rope-a-dope” strategy to tire Foreman in the oppressive Zaire heat, gave evidence to how strategic Ali was – and how brilliant. He was always out-thinking opponents.
That defied the stereotypes of white America. It was one of racism’s deepest precepts that blacks weren’t as smart as whites. Ali clearly was, and he infused his adversarial attitude with cleverness and impertinence. Black America was not only asserting itself in its culture. It was doing what Ali had often done in the ring: showing up opponents.
That was the difference between black power and Ali power. The latter had a cocky, funny, self-confident impudence the former didn’t, which may be why it has endured. That was what Ali contributed to black aspiration. He took the attitude of grievance and humorised it, popularised it and nationalised it until it became a pervasive component of the larger American culture: black culture equal to white culture, and often surpassing it in influence.
That was Ali’s civil rights movement, the achievement of which was, in many ways, the equal of King’s. King’s at the Olympian heights of politics and law, Ali’s at the foothills of popular culture.
Instinctively realising that Ali was a cultural trailblazer and not just a superb athlete, white America didn’t take his challenges lightly. It did everything it could to take him down. The American legal system, which questioned his conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, forced him into a three-year hiatus, and prevented him from pursuing his profession at the height of his powers. We will never know how badly that affected his career.
But if the white establishment had hoped to disempower Ali, its tactics had the opposite effect. Sacrificing his career, Ali became a man of principle and an obvious victim of the white power structure. He became bigger out of the ring than he had even been inside it.
As the decades passed, Ali’s early, dignified fortitude in the face of unrelenting opposition raised him into the cultural pantheon. For many admirers, no doubt, that dignity will be his legacy. He never seemed embittered or angry. He never complained. He never lost his way. He never seemed self-important. All that is true.
Yet his bigger legacy will surely be that culture he created from his own outsized personality – a culture that has been the wellspring of so much in America and that has profoundly affected it.
Ali, too, seems to have had a dream: An America where blacks can say whatever they want, whenever they want and in whatever way they want. This is the impudence and insolence that Ali bequeathed to his people and to this country. And that is likely to live forever.
(Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywoodand Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He’s working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.)