September 29, 2008
SPORTS ARE a central part of modern culture and society, and a
multibillion-dollar big business to boot, yet they almost never get
attention from political commentators of any stripe.
Dave Zirin has made it his mission to set they imbalance right.
Through his eyes, sports are never "just a game," but a reflection of
the political and social conflicts that shape American society. His
new book A People's History of Sports in the United States--part of a
series edited by historian Howard Zinn and published by The New
Press--both chronicles the world of sports and draws out its
connections to the conditions and contradictions of the wider society.
Zirin is a columnist for SocialistWorker.org and sports commentator
for the Nation magazine, among other publications. He has authored
two collections of sports writings, Welcome to the Terrordome: The
Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports and What's My Name, Fool? Sports
and Resistance in the United States. His writings are also featured
at his Edge of Sports Web site.
In this excerpt, published here with permission, Zirin tells some of
the story of Muhammad Ali, an athletic superstar whose impact on
sports continues to this day--and whose impact on American society in
an era of struggle was likewise immense.
MUHAMMAD ALI'S identity was forged in the 1950s and 1960s, as the
Black freedom struggle heated up and boiled over. He was born Cassius
Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942. His father, a
frustrated artist, made his living as a house painter. His mother,
like Jackie Robinson's mother, was a domestic worker. The Louisville
of 1942 was a segregated horse-breeding community, where being Black
meant being seen in service-oriented jobs and rarely heard.
But the young Clay could do two things that set him apart: he could
box, and he could talk. His mouth was like that on other no fighter
or athlete or any public Black figure anyone had ever heard. Joe
Louis used to say, "My manager does my talking for me. I do my
talking in the ring." Clay talked, inside the ring and out. The press
called him the "Louisville Lip," "Cash the Brash," "Mighty Mouth" and
"Gaseous Cassius." He used to say he talked so much because he
admired the style of a pro wrestler named Gorgeous George. But in an
unguarded moment, he once said, "Where do you think I'd be next week
if I didn't know how to shout and holler and make the public take
notice? I'd be poor, and I'd probably be down in my hometown, washing
windows or running an elevator, and saying 'yassuh' and 'nawsuh,' and
knowing my place."
Ali, of course, could back up the talk. His boxing skills won him the
gold medal in the 1960 Olympics at age 18. When he returned from
Rome--and this was the first step in his political arc--the young
Clay held a press conference at the airport, his gold medal swinging
from his neck, and said:
To make America the greatest is my goal
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole
And for the USA won the Medal of Gold.
Italians said "You're greater than the Cassius of old."
Clay loved his gold medal. Fellow Olympian Wilma Rudolph remembered,
"He slept with it, he went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it
off." The week after returning home from the Olympics, Clay went to
eat a cheeseburger with his medal swinging around his neck in a
Louisville restaurant--and was denied service. As he later said, that
medal found a home "at the bottom of the Ohio River."
The young Clay actively looked for political answers and began
finding them when he heard Malcolm X speak at a meeting of the Nation
of Islam. He heard Malcolm say, "You might see these Negroes who
believe in nonviolence and mistake us for one of them, and put your
hands on us, thinking that we are going to turn the other cheek--and
we'll put you to death just like that." Malcolm X was an attractive
figure. His impatience, his militancy, his rejection of nonviolence
and his stony-eyed critiques of Democratic politicians and
middle-of-the-road civil rights leaders gave him a following far
beyond his organization.
As Malcolm X said in 1964,
You'll get freedom by letting your enemy know that you'll do anything
to get your freedom; then you'll get it. It's the only way you'll get
it. When you get that kind of attitude, they'll label you as a "crazy
Negro," or they'll call you a "crazy nigger"--they don't say Negro.
Or they'll call you an extremist or a subversive or seditious or a
red or a radical. But when you stay radical long enough and get
enough people to be like you, you'll get your freedom.
The young fighter and Malcolm X became both political allies and fast
friends. Malcolm stayed with Clay as he trained for his fight against
the "Big Ugly Bear," the champion Sonny Liston.
Before he had signed to fight Clay, Liston had been portrayed in the
press as eight steps beyond evil. He had an arrest record that could
fill a file cabinet and had been in the past employed by the mob as a
strike-breaker and enforcer. Radical poet Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi
Jones) called Liston "the big black Negro in every white man's
hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under for all the hurts white
men, through their arbitrary order, have been able to inflict on the world."
Before Liston's championship fight when he won the title against
Floyd Patterson, President Kennedy took the time to call Patterson
and express that it would not be in "the Negroes' best interest" if
Liston won. As one writer noted dryly, "The fight definitely was not
in Patterson's best interest." Liston destroyed Patterson, setting
the stage for his fight against Clay.
The writer James Baldwin was sent to cover Liston before the fight.
He wrote, "[Liston] is far from stupid; is not, in fact, stupid at
all. And while there is a great deal of violence in him, I sensed no
cruelty at all. On the contrary, he reminded me of big, Black men I
have know who acquired the reputation of being tough in order to
conceal the fact that they weren't hard. Anyone who cared to could
turn them into taffy."
But by this point, most of the press were paying far more attention
to Clay, little of it positive. With Malcolm around, rumors flew that
Clay was going to join the Nation of Islam, and the press hounded
him, wanting to know. At one point, he said, "I might if you keep asking me."
While everyone was predicting an easy knockout for Liston, Malcolm
said that Clay would win. He "is the finest Negro athlete I have ever
known, the man who will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson,
because Robinson is the white man's hero." Malcolm also pointed out,
"Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One
forgets that though a clown never imitates a wise man, the wise man
can imitate the clown." Although the verdict was out on whether he
was wise or a clown, no one gave him a chance against Liston. But
Clay--quicker, stronger and bolder than anyone knew--shocked the
nation and beat Liston. He then shouted to the heavens, over a
reporter's questions, "I'm king of the world!"
When Clay said he was the greatest, it wasn't far from the truth. The
day after he beat Liston, he announced publicly that he was a member
of the Nation of Islam, causing a firestorm. The fact was that the
heavyweight champion of the world was joining the organization of
Malcolm X. The Olympic gold medalist had linked arms with a group
that called white people "devils" and stood unapologetically for
self-defense and racial separation. Not surprisingly, the power
brokers of the conservative, mobbed-up, corrupt fight world lost
their minds. Jimmy Cannon, the most famous sportswriter in America,
apparently forgetting the entire career of Jack Johnson, wrote that
this was the first time that boxing had ever "been turned into an
instrument of mass hate...Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness."
Clay was attacked not only by Cannon and his ilk but also by the
respectable wing of the civil rights movement. "Cassius may not know
it, but he is now an honorary member of the White Citizens'
Councils," said Roy Wilkins. Clay's response at this point was very
defensive. He repeatedly said that his wasn't a political stand, but
purely a religious conversion. His defense reflected the conservative
perspective of the Nation of Islam: "I'm not going to get killed
trying to force myself on people who don't want me...Integration is
wrong. The white people don't want integration, and the Muslims don't
believe in it. So what's wrong with the Muslims?" At another point,
he said, "I have never been to jail. I have never been in court. I
don't join any integration marches...I don't carry signs."
But much like Malcolm X, who at the time was engineering a political
break from the Nation, Clay--much to the anger of Elijah
Muhammad--found it impossible to explain his religious worldview
without speaking to the mass Black freedom struggle exploding outside
the boxing ring. He was his own worst enemy--claiming that his was a
religious transformation and had nothing to do with politics, but
then, in the next breath, saying, "I ain't no Christian. I can't be
when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get
blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs, and they blow
up a Negro church." Unrepentantly, Clay said, "People are always
telling me what a good example I could be if I just wasn't a Muslim.
I've heard it over and over, how come I couldn't be like Joe Louis
and Sugar Ray. Well, they've gone now, and the Black man's condition
is just the same, ain't it? We're still catching hell."
If the establishment press was outraged, the new generation of
activists was electrified. "I remember when Ali joined the Nation,"
remembered civil rights leader Julian Bond. "The act of joining was
not something many of us particularly liked. But the notion that he
would do it, that he'd jump out there, join this group that was so
despised by mainstream America and be proud of it, sent a little
thrill through you...He was able to tell white folks for us to go to
hell; that I'm going to do it my way."
For a time, he was known as Cassius X, but Elijah Muhammad gave Clay
the name Muhammad Ali--a tremendous honor and a way to ensure that
Ali would side with Elijah Muhammad in his split from Malcolm X. Ali
proceeded to commit what he would later describe as his greatest
mistake--turning his back on Malcolm. But the internal politics of
the Nation were not what the powers that be and the media noticed. To
them, the Islamic name change--something that had never occurred
before in sports--was a sharp slap in the face.
Almost overnight, whether an individual called the champ Ali or Clay
indicated where that person stood on civil rights, Black power and
eventually the war in Vietnam. The New York Times insisted on calling
him Clay as editorial policy for years thereafter.
This all took place against the backdrop of a Black freedom struggle
rolling from the South to the North. During the summer of 1964, there
were a thousand arrests of civil rights activists, 30 buildings
bombed and 36 churches burned by the Ku Klux Klan and their
sympathizers. In 1964, the first of the urban uprisings and riots in
the northern ghettoes took place in Harlem. The politics of Black
Power was starting to emerge, and Muhammad Ali became the critical
symbol in this transformation. As news anchor Bryant Gumbel said,
"One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that
Black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe
that for many Black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali.
He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other
A concrete sign of Ali's early influence was seen in 1965 when
Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in
Lowndes County, Ala., launched an independent political party. Their
new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Their
bumper stickers and T-shirts were of a black silhouette of a panther,
and their slogan was straight from the champ: "We Are the Greatest."
It's this broader context that allows us to understand why Ali's
post-name-change fights--like the Louis-Schmeling fight years
before--became incredible political dramas of the Black revolution
versus the people who opposed it. Floyd Patterson, who wrapped
himself tightly in the American flag, challenged Ali and said, "This
fight is a crusade to reclaim the title from the Black Muslims. As a
Catholic, I am fighting Clay as a patriotic duty. I am going to
return the crown to America."
In the fight itself, Ali brutalized Patterson for the entire 12
rounds, dragging it out and yelling, "Come on America! Come on white
America!" Future Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver wrote in
his 1968 autobiography Soul on Ice, "If the Bay of Pigs can be seen
as a straight right hand to the psychological jaw of white America,
then [Ali/Patterson] was a perfect left hook to the gut."