Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties
Second edition 2005
Muhammad Ali was viewed by the time of his death with great affection by the American establishment.
Yet for several years in the 60s he was unchallenged as the most reviled figure in the history of American sports. Why this was the case is sharply analysed in this book by the late Mike Marqusee, a white American who permanently left the US in 1971 to live in England.
Ali's important social and cultural impact would not have been possible if he had not been a truly great boxer. Fighting as Cassius Marcellus Clay, he won Gold for the USA at the 1960 Olympics before becoming World Heavyweight champion in 1964.
He was then given a new Islamic name of Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam that Ali had joined two years earlier. This great honour helped direct Ali away from Malcolm X, the man who had originally recognised his leadership qualities, and who was to be assassinated in the very month, February 1965, when the US upped its involvement in North Vietnam by launching its Rolling Thunder air war. By the time of the eventual ceasefire in the conflict eight years later, US planes had dropped three times the tonnage of bombs unloaded on all of Europe, Africa and Asia throughout World War II.
The conflict in Vietnam was to be the first American war in which the mood amongst black people was oppositional. Previously it had largely been the case that black involvement was viewed as a way of pressing claims in times of peace for equality, long denied in a country built on racial segregation. In 1963, Malcolm X had become one of the best known black people to condemn America's meddling in Southeast Asia.
In early 1966, a time when opposition to the war was still limited, Ali was told he had been drafted and would have to fight in Vietnam. In an era when revolutionary movements against colonialism were being constructed — and undermined by US imperialism - Ali replied: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” He made clear he was not going to fight even if it meant he went to prison. He was pilloried as sports commentator's rushed to claim he had been 'duped' and didn't understand what was taking place in Vietnam. His forthcoming fight with Ernie Terrell in Chicago was ruled by the Illinois attorney general as illegal on grounds that he had not used his 'correct name' of Cassius Clay on the contract. Other possibles venues refused to host the fight.
When the US then moved to prosecute Ali for his public opposition to the war and the draft the boxer refused to surrender his beliefs, which were now inspiring many others to refuse to fight. Ali was sentenced to five years in prison but released on bail pending appeal. As he continued to fight his case in the courts, he was stripped of his titles for over three and a half years. It was a time when he was arguably, as asserted by Hugh McIlvanney, taking boxing into new territory and was at his physical peak.
In 1971, Ali successfully overturned his conviction for draft evasion in 1971 and returned to the ring in what Marqusee describes as "a triumph over the system." Ali was to go on and defeat Joe Frazier in 1973, George Forman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in 1974 and Leon Spinks in 1978, thus becoming the only man to become World Heavyweight champion on three occasions. Ironically the Forman fight was bankrolled by dictator Joseph Mobutu who, with US support, had in 1960 overthrown the (only) democratically elected Congo President, Patrice Lumumba, who was subsequently assassinated. Prior to the fight, Ali, wistfully remarked, “I wish Lumumba was here to see me.”
Marqusee shows how by the mid 70s, Ali was being embraced by the American establishment. This peaked in 1996 when, with support from advertisers, backstage lobbying by NBC Sports saw Ali chosen to light the torch at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia before a sell-out crowd of 83,000 people paying $600 a ticket. Ali's international standing amongst the masses was being cynically used by capitalists to sell the Games and its spinoff products. Ali had mellowed and his value to the American establishment thereafter was precisely because he had spectacularly defied them in the past, risking jail in the process.
Nevertheless, as Marqusee notes: “Between 1964 and 1975, Muhammad Ali spoke to the world as a defiantly unofficial ambassador for a dissident America…….Ali’s real heroism lies in actions we can all emulate: in placing solidarity with human beings in remote lands above loyalty to any national government, in setting conscience before personal convenience.”
This is a truly great book about a truly great man.