Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Another Comeback for “The Greatest (aka… Muhammad Ali).

September 20, 2021 by  
Filed under Ent., News, Opinion, Sports, Weekly Columns

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(ThyBlackMan.com) There are two events seared deep in my memory about. 

The greatest” AKA Muhammad Ali. Neither one of which remotely involves boxing. Some of the buzz about documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ multi-part PBS series on Ali premiered on September 19 brought these memories back. In his three wilderness years in the late 1960s that Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for refusing army induction, Ali kept busy lecturing on college campuses.

One of his stops was at California State University, Los Angeles, my alma mater. Ali arrived on campus followed by a small swarm of FBI agents. Wherever Ali went, FBI agents tracked his every move. This didn’t matter to me. In fact, it added to his allure.

I, and a small entourage of Black Student Union members, met him in the parking lot to serve as his “official” escorts to the auditorium. Ali was the paragon of cheer and graciousness and was as always playful. He shook everyone’s hand and engaged in light-hearted banter with the students. In his talk, he stuck to his stock themes, leading a chant, “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” punctuated by digs at the Johnson administration and his denunciation of racial oppression. During his speech, the FBI took notes and snapped pictures of those in the crowd.


However, what brought the house down, was his shout to the standing-room-only crowd that despite everything the government did to him, he still was the biggest, baddest and prettiest, and yes the greatest. As he departed to loud cheers and shouts of encouragement, I, and a few others, thrust our draft cards in front of him, and he eagerly signed mine and the others. To this day his signature on my draft card is one of my most precious and endearing keepsakes.

Shortly after that Ali made a brief appearance at a giant anti-Vietnam March and rally in Los Angeles. Again, I and a handful of others joined in as part of Ali’s “protective” escort entourage to and from the rally. He inked my draft card again.

In the near half-century since then, Ali has been one of the most talked-about, written about, filmed about, and still lionized figures in American history. It’s like what on Earth could Burns or any other writer or filmmaker say that hasn’t been said about Ali?

Probably still a lot, forget boxing for a moment. Ali was once America’s official and biggest pariah. His conversion to the Nation of Islam, his one-time friendship with Malcolm X, his outspoken black preachments, all capped by his refusal to be inducted, and his outspoken stance against the Vietnam War, made him a marked man. A federal grand jury in Houston quickly indicted him, and an all-white jury convicted him.

He was slapped with the maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. His passport was revoked. The FBI stepped up its effort to ruin him. In one of its many wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, it noted that Ali had proposed to donate the proceeds from a boxing match to King’s organization. But the match could not be held, since every state boxing commission in the country had, by then, revoked Ali’s license.

Still, the FBI was alert for any hint that Ali might try to dodge legal restrictions on him to earn money in the ring. Then obsessive political witch-hunting FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned waves of agents to watch and record everything that Ali said whenever he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” FBI agents also distributed “anti-violent statements” to counter what the bureau called “the anti-Vietnam stand of Cassius Clay.” The FBI’s spy-and-intimidation operation against Ali was finally exposed in legal documents in his draft case in 1970.

In the next two decades, the unthinkable happened. Ali was no longer America’s fallen and disgraced boxing champion, he was now officially rehabilitated, even exulted, as an American global ambassador of the sport and even of political goodwill. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terror attack, a Hollywood group loosely known as Hollywood 9/11 that worked with the Bush administration to support the war on terrorism promoted happy images of American life to film audiences in Africa and the Middle East. And who did they choose to be their star pitchman, Ali. A deeply reluctant Ali was the runaway choice to carry the Torch opening the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

During the next decade, the honors continued to flow to him. Presidents, heads of state, and foreign dignitaries, all hailed him as an authentic American hero and icon. But Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease had taken its toll. Yet the rare times he appeared in public, I noted that he still had that same ingratiating smile he greeted me with those years earlier. And he would snap out an occasional playful jab to swooning and adoring admirers.

Burns is an unabashed hero worshipper of Ali and doesn’t try to hide it. He calls Ali the greatest athlete that ever lived. The hyperbole notwithstanding, Burns as I, and millions of others have, found something else in Ali worth talking about that had nothing to do with boxing. That something still makes him “the Greatest.”

Written By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

One can find more info about Mr. Hutchinson over at the following site; TheHutchinson Report.

Also feel free to connect with him through twitter; http://twitter.com/earlhutchins

He is also an associate editor of New America Media. His forthcoming book is From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press).

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