Monday, June 20, 2016

Muhammad Ali And The Fear Of Freedom

If you're under the age of 50, chances are you don't remember a little movie called "Easy Rider." Released in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War and the countercultural reaction against the Establishment that was blamed for it, it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as two drug pushers on a cross-country bike trip after scoring a big deal. Along the way, they pick up a young Southern lawyer played by Jack Nicholson, the performance that launched him to superstardom.  (Major spoiler alert) Before Nicholson's character, George Hanson, is murdered, he tells Wyatt and Billy, the pushers played by Fonda and Hopper, that people aren't scared of them.  They're scared of what Wyatt and Billy represent to them:  freedom.
... talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.*
I found myself reflecting on this line when I read about the recent death of another 1960s icon, one who staged his own countercultural rebellion against the Vietnam War and the Establishment: Muhammad Ali.

With the war and its folly long established as a sad fact of American history, and with the Establishment utterly redefined by the counterculture that stood against it, it is probably impossible for someone under 50 to remember the utter hatred, the undiluted vitriol, the immense and intense outcry by white America against a young heavyweight boxing champion who traded in his birth name of Cassius Clay when he converted to Islam, and then let himself be stripped of his championship when he refused to register for the draft that could have sent him to Southeast Asia.  It's perhaps best summed up for me by a (white) college roommate who, well into the '70s, referred to Ali by his birth name.  Long after Ali had been restored to boxing's good graces, and the rest of the county had moved on, a large segment of it wasn't afraid to show that it would never move at all.

It was this article that made me think about the link between the Nicholson character in "Easy Rider," and Ali.  It quotes him as saying the following, years after the draft controversy:
Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.
And that was the real problem Ali faced when he defied the draft.  For many white people in this country, then and now, freedom is little more than a word that sounds good when you say it or hear it. But it's considered bad manners to act on what it really means.  Because that separates you from the crowd.  And what terrifies most white people, really terrifies them, is not being part of the crowd.

Hatred of Ali had nothing to do with defying the government; conservatives have proven over the last quarter-century that they're happy to defy the government if they think it's against them.  On the other hand, it had a lot to do with Ali's skin color.  African-Americans (or, as they were called then in so-called polite society, Negroes) weren't supposed to be truly independent thinkers.  Oh, they had "freedom," legally, but they weren't supposed to act like it.  Because then, they might get the idea that they deserved justice. And, to the whites who still believed the antebellum South could rise again, justice for black men and women scared them to death.

Fortunately for all of us, Ali had something that has to go hand-in-had with the desire to be free, if you ever expect that desire to be fulfilled:  courage.  He stayed the course.  He refused to renounce his stance.  He regained his stature in the boxing world, and moved beyond it, to become an international celebrity and source of hope to many.  Even some in the sports journalism world, such as the late Dick Young of the New York Daily News, learned to forgive and accept.  And thank G-d for a white, Jewish sportscaster named Howard Cosell, who championed Ali and never let us forget why the rest of us needed to champion him as well.

In the end, Ali destroyed the hatred, and changed how many of us look at each other, and at the rest of the world.  He wasn't afraid of freedom, and he helped others to lose their fear of it as well. And that's why he truly deserved his own, self-proclaimed title:

The Greatest.

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