Muhammad Ali: The Hero Who Once Was an Enemy of the State

Culture Watch
tags: Muhammad Ali

Ms. Rosen is an editorial writer and columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and former professor of history at U.C. Davis.

AS A FILM, the newly released"Ali" is riveting, but disappointing. Will Smith fails to capture the charismatic, larger-than-life energy of the extraordinary man who alternately mesmerized and antagonized the American public.

Still, it is worth seeing. Aside from watching the great boxer's lightening jabs and dancing feet -- and hearing early rhythmic sounds of rap -- this film has much to teach us about our country's recent history.

Forty years ago, Islam was an unfamiliar religion to most Americans. When the great boxer Cassius Clay announced his conversion in 1964, along with the new name of Muhammad Ali, his fans were simply stunned.

Why had an African American renounced a name just because his ancestors originally received it from a slave owner? Why had an urban black boxer become a Muslim? To many uninformed Americans, black Muslims seemed synonymous with black militants. The public grew scared. Had Ali become an advocate of violent revolution?

Four decades later, President Bush has just asked Muhammad Ali to star in a television spot designed to show the rest of the Islamic world that America welcomes Muslims, but not terrorists.

"Ali" also reminds us that the American system of justice, as flawed as it often seems, usually works. When Muhammad Ali refused -- for both religious and political reasons -- to go to Vietnam, he faced five years in prison and lost his boxing license, as well as his title as the world's heavyweight boxing champion.

The government vilified him as an unpatriotic draft dodger. Huge legal expenses, coupled with a long absence from the ring, cost him his livelihood. But instead of fleeing the country, Ali remained to fight for justice right here, in the United States.

To everyone's surprise, the Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction and upheld his religious and political right to dissent from his government's policies. Once again, Ali was free to box -- and regain his title.

On a more ominous note, an important warning lurks within Ali's remarkable story. Because of his dissenting beliefs, he was relentlessly hounded by the FBI, who tapped each phone call and tracked his every movement.

Today, Ali is a national icon, revered for his great talent and honored for the life he has lived with such conviction.

Now, when our government has heightened its surveillance of civilians and the attorney general has equated dissent with a lack of patriotism, it is worth remembering that Muhammad Ali was once unjustly persecuted as an enemy of the state.

This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

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Devissi Muhammad - 1/8/2002

Mr. Ed Schimtt raises very important points that are worthy of consideration concerning Muhammad Ali. Certainly, a book or a major piece of research is lacking from the scholarly record on Muhammad Ali's relationship to Elijah Muhammad and how Ali interpreted or understood the Nation of Islam's explication of the religion of Islam. This, alone, would provide more insight into Ali's complex personality and courageousness of his youth. Certainly, this element is missing from the recent movie, as well as from the Spike Lee's Malcolm X; Elijah Muhammad has been relegated to a shadowy figure by most because of his unorthodox interpretation of Islam, lack of formal education, inarticluate expression English, polygamous relationships, and boldness, along with spending time in federal prison because he objected to participating in World War II.

Equally important, one must consider who is telling the story, or writing the history, or making the movie. What is that person's background and sentiments about Ali's relationship to Elijah Muhammad? As with Malcolm X, only a few members of the Nation of Islam, past and present, if any, were consulted on the movie about Ali. Where is the perspective of the Nation of Islam? Where is the information from the comprehensive research, since millions of dollars were spent on this presentation?

It appears, since all of Ali's work as a minister in the Nation of Islam was missing from the movie, that Ali's current public relations firm desires to dissociate him from Elijah Muhammad and the NOI as much as possible. This is the legacy and one of the main messages that the movie evokes. And lastly, this is the problematic of writing or configuring a biography of person who is alive--that person does not want the entire truth to be told, especially parts that may be embarassing or not respected or accepteded by mainstream America. Consequently, Ali is the heavyweight boxing champion of the world in parts of the 1960s and 1970s, with stupendous courage, who is half wit and incredulous, yet with a gentle heart, manipulated by Elijah and son Herbert and an entourage for his money and fame, along with misunderstanding the religion of Islam in general.

Ed Schmitt - 1/7/2002

Professor Rosen's article is an important corrective to some of the ahistorical Ali adulation. One area of the Ali story I would like to see explored are the distinct differences between the history and theology of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and the global religion of Islam. While Ali seems to have undergone an evolution in his own Muslim faith, and his winning personality transcends religious divisions, the historical-cultural particulars of the Nation of Islam in the 1960s can't be permitted to be equated wholesale with the worldwide faith of Islam (which of course has become achingly clear has its own divisions) that Malcolm X embraced toward the end of his life. When Ali declared that he had "no quarrel with the Vietcong," that came less from the Koran than from the sensitivity to and rejection of white racism emphasized by the Black Muslim faith, which saw the root of evil in the myth of a mad scientist who accidentally produced the white race.