Black PowerThe True Meaning of the Term, Then and Now
By Sam Fulwood III
March 1, 2011
In its observance of the recently ended Black History Month, my
friend Michel Martin at NPR's "Tell Me More" asked if I'd record an
homage to someone from history that I admire. I chose Muhammad Ali.
Ali was an immediate choice, not because he was a great boxer (he
was, as he knew, "The Greatest of All Time") but because he burst on
the public scene during the tumultuous 1960s, a period of history
that defined black identity for me and my generation. I was a child
of the Civil Rights era, one who matured into adulthood at the moment
the chains of segregation were unlocked. Ali was one of the brothers
with the key.
In doing research for my radio commentary, I came across a
fascinating video clip of a television interview that Ali conducted,
probably on a British television station, after he regained his
heavyweight title with the upset victory in 1974 over George Foreman.
In the interview, the presenter noted that Ali was the second-most
popular person in the United Statestrailing only then-President
Richard Nixon. (Really? I'm not sure who conducted that poll!)
Anyway, the presenter asked Ali, "Do you want to be president?"
Without missing a beat, Ali said "No." He went on to explain in
simple, colorful language why he wouldn't ever want to be president.
He concluded with a prophetic summary. "America's in too much
trouble," Ali said smiling. "I don't want that job now. Something to
think about, ain't it?"
Yes, indeed. Ali's humor and genius foreshadowed the challenges
besetting the current occupant of the White House, who happens to be
the first black president. President Barack Obama came into office to
clean up the economic, fiscal, and international political messes
created by his predecessor. The country was sinking in debt. Two wars
in the Middle East sapped wiggle room for domestic programs. The
nation's banking system was on the verge of collapse, threatening to
send the country into a second Great Depression.
Though little credit seems to flow Obama's way, he has averted nearly
every disaster he had no hand in creating. Slowly, Americans are
beginning to sense that things are turning around for the better. A
recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the president's approval rating rose
to 50 percent in January from 45 percent in December, marking the
first time he'd been praised by half of the poll responders since
last June. Still, more respondents were unhappy as 47 percent
disapproved of him, up from 46 percent in December.
What all this suggests is that Ali knew what he was talking about,
not merely making a clever joke. He was offering an insightful
analysis of the racial politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s
that applies even to this day for African Americans in positions of
political power in the United States.
Beginning in Cleveland with Carl Stokes's election in 1967 as the
first black mayor of a major U.S. city, black politicians made
headlines as they took over City Halls across the country. Through
the 1970s and into the 1980s, black men were elected mayors in places
such as Gary, IN; Detroit; Atlanta; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, Los
Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.
Almost without exception, those mayors came into office when their
cities were facing serious social and financial distress. Their
ascent coincided with the downturn of their cities as heavy,
job-producing industries left urban centers. Affluent, taxpaying
white residents raced each other to the suburbs and exurbia, often
with the wink-and-nod support of state and federal governments.
What remained for those pioneering black mayors to govern were cities
with overwhelmed police departments, gang crime, a crack epidemic,
poverty-induced slums, and deteriorating public schools. Blogger
Joshua Lazards, who writes for the online site Uppity Negro Network,
noted the same concern as Ali did a generation earlier. "Essentially,
many black mayors were given the helm to sinking ships," Lazards posted.
So it comes as no surprise that someone as well-liked as Ali could
joke about staying in the boxing ring and not risking his popularity
by aspiring to be president. But things may well turn out differently
for President Obama compared to Ali's worries 40 years ago or to the
debilitating experiences of the big-city black mayors. The president
seems to enjoy his job just fineand so far he's steered our
erstwhile endangered ship clear of threatening waters.
It's all good. Ali wisely never went into elected politics, and the
man in the White House probably wouldn't have been much of a
heavyweight boxer, either.