There is something symbolic about Muhammad Ali leaving this world as the rest of us are left here to watch the impending rise of Donald Trump. Perhaps this was too much even for a Champ like Ali. I wonder how Trump would respond to the raw, honest eloquence of the young Muhammad Ali who facing a bunch of ivy league frat boys said the following: “You’re my enemy, my enemy is the white people [… ] you’re my opposer when I want freedom, you’re my opposer when I want justice, you’re my opposer when I want equality, you won’t even stand up for me here in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.” While Ali was the embodiment of the brilliant, Black fighter seeking justice and at the same time a humble Muslim, Trump is the embodiment of arrogant, ignorant and self-centered White America.
Muhammad Ali thought that going to jail instead of going to fight in Vietnam was a logical choice. He was right of course and if only more people had his courage and his convictions the world would be a better place. But in America patriotism is tied to agreeing with US foreign policy, and that almost always involves killing innocent people in far-away lands. Ali saw that there was no justification to the Vietnam war and that as a Black man his fight was at home, in America, a country that likes to call itself “Land of the Free” but is far from it. White America sends young Black men to fight its wars overseas claiming it is doing so to defend freedom – a freedom that still does not exist for Blacks in America. Ali did not refuse to “serve” he refused to be used, and with this refusal Ali did more for his people than any American who did agree to go to war.
“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.” Few Americans have ever had the courage to be as clear, blunt and open about why the Unites States goes to war. America managed to get away with committing crimes against humanity while presenting itself as the “Leader of the Free World.” A brief review of Americas greatest hits includes the genocide of the native people of America, rape, kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, legalized racism, and this is just within the boundaries of the US. Overseas highlights include massacre of countless civilians in Japan and then the ultimate crime of dropping two nuclear bombs. Then there was Vietnam, Iraq and and the list is too long to recall here. One wonders of which “Free World” is the United States the leader? Ali saw it and he called it: White masters determined to dominate people who are darker – that has been the real cause for wars for the US and many of its European allies – one might argue that if Hitler had occupied non-European countries and murdered millions of people who were not white there would have been reason for the Allied Forces to fight him.
“Where are all the black angels mama?” Ali recalled asking his mother during an interview in the UK. Ali pointed out the lies and myths that always placed Whites as good and Blacks as evil, though when it came to race relations in the Unites States the opposite was almost always the case, and sadly still is the case. The list of great writers and thinkers, musicians and performers, athletes and scholars who are Black is endless. The list of contributions that Black Americans have made to the world is immeasurable, yet over one million Black men are held in prison in the US and incarceration rates for Blacks are said to be six times higher than Whites. If Blacks in a racist country like the United States managed to reached such heights, one can only imagine the things they would achieve had they the same opportunities as Whites.
Michelle Alexander said it right when she wrote, “What Muhammad Ali did—in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing black skin—was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage. Through the Champ’s words on the streets and deeds in the ring, bravery was not only standing up to Sonny Liston. It was speaking truth to power, no matter the cost.” And it is precisely that courageous raw honesty spoken to power that is missing from the discourse in America. Where are the moderators, the politicians the leaders who will look at Donald Trump and put him in his place?
Ali said nothing new. Malcolm X said similar things, Fred Hampton, a revered twenty-one-year-old Black Panthers leader who was gunned down in his sleep by Chicago police in 1969 also called it like he saw it. He saw what capitalist imperialist America had done to his community and tried to speak up and to fight it. “If its criminal to feed feed children and feed the hungry,” Hampton said, “then we all want to be criminals.” And indeed, it was criminal to do that if you were a Black revolutionary in America.
Because Ali was Black and honest and a Muslim – even though White America revered him – no one in White America listened to him, much less believed him. James Baldwin puts it like this: “When a White man faces a Black man, especially if the Black man is helpless, terrible things happen. I know. I have been carried into precinct basements often enough, and I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.” White America could put up with Ali because the unspoken assumption is always that a Black man who speaks the truth is an angry Black man who is talking nonsense.
Men like Muhammad Ali always die too soon. They leave us to deal with unsolved problems and unresolved issues. In today’s America, an America that is left to choose between two seventy-year-old rich white millionaires for president, an America where covert racism is everywhere and overt racism is now proudly, shamelessly back thanks to Donald Trump and his millions of supporters – we desperately need Muhammad Ali.
This article was written by Miko Peled for American Herald Tribune on June 9, 2016. Miko Peled is an Israeli writer and activist living in the US. He was born and raised in Jerusalem. His father was the late Israeli General Matti Peled. Driven by a personal family tragedy to explore Palestine, its people and their narrative.