On this day in 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born. By the time he went to be with the ancestors on June 3rd, 2016, he was as much a man as he was a legend. He was The Greatest. We knew we would never see his like again, but rather than wallow in our grief, we considered ourselves lucky to have lived when he did. His extraordinary life, his outsize personality, his self-belief and presence of mind are primarily real to us because we were here on Earth with him, for a time.
Imagine a Black man with this much swag, at a time when our very humanity was barely recognized, when we were invisible in mainstream society. A boxer, an athlete, a single-minded competitor, he fought his way into the 60s and then moved toward the myths many of us know. Olympic Gold in 1960, heavyweight champion of the world over Sonny Liston in ’64. But then, the Vietnam War came calling, and he said: ‘I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Viet Cong never called me n***er.’
Officially, he was a conscientious objector to the war, but to Black people, his speeches about the hypocrisy of asking for service despite racism, disrespect, and limited opportunity in America were part of the rhetoric of the Civil Rights era. This was a refrain heard many times, but rarely from someone this charismatic, this compelling, this..phenomenal.
And really, this is the thing those of us who love sports love. The intangible we can hardly describe, the essence of the narrative of sports. The thing we can’t stop waiting for again, and again. It’s the moment where the athleticism, the dedication, the precision, the prediction, the unprediction, the un-reproducable, arrives. And then we wait again, we collect these moments, they connect us to history and each other and mass culture and, even distantly, to these extraordinary feats.
Muhammad Ali, his name after converting to Islam in 1964, was unstoppable even in defeat. He was his own strongest supporter. His unapologetic resistance to the draft galvanized many Black people in a time when tangible change seemed possible. He inspired Black people all over the world. The documentary about his ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against George Foreman, When We Were Kings, is one of my favorite sports documentaries of all time. The political, social, and economic stakes of the event are gorgeously articulated.
Away from his dramatic sports triumphs, apart from his extraordinary way of being, Ali was also incredibly generous, donating to HBCUs, and charities, feeding millions of people in his lifetime. He talked a guy down from a bridge in the early 80s. Yes, he endorsed Reagan for re-election in ’84. He also negotiated hostage releases just before the first Gulf War. He brought attention to the Rwandan genocide. He lit the Olympic flame in ’96. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2005. All of this in one lifetime.
I felt a familiar feeling when the news of Pele leaving us reached the internet a few weeks ago. What a time to be alive, to have seen all that these Black men accomplished, from so little, to so much, always seeking to encourage, uplift, and triumph, not for personal glory, but because they knew themselves, they knew their worth, and they knew how to use it before anyone else would.
At any rate, it’s approaching midnight, I wrote this in one fell swoop, and I’m tired, so that’s that.
Be good to each other. Extend grace, give benefit of the doubt. Contribute to the compassion we all appreciate here in this community.