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Why We Hated Ali - And Then Loved Him

Memories can be an enemy. Their distortions often defeat us.

We ended the Vietnam War because America rose up to hate it. We all know that. Except that's not exactly true. Many Americans loved that war - or at least supported it - through much of its duration. Just as many of us still loved Richard Nixon on the day he boarded Marine I and flew away into permanent disgrace.

Even as the Founding Fathers were expelling the British in 1776, just as many colonists were Tories who backed the king. Eighty thousand fled to Canada to escape the Patriots' outrage and murderous mobs.

We are a nation of too many murderous mobs.

But Tories did not get to write the history books.

Nuance is a tough sell for our memories. We tend to believe the simple, and toss the rest.

So now it is unchallenged, presumptive history that American always loved Muhammad Ali, the champ who floated like a butterfly into our hearts.

He became this gentle, endearing but ailing old man before he died on June 3, 2016, after fighting off the Parkinson's disease that stalked him for three decades.

The world loved him at the end.

But do we ever wonder why we didn't love him at the beginning when was a young man in his glory, and perhaps the most gifted athlete of his century? What did that loathing of him say about him, or more to the point, what did it reveal about the nation?

This last week of April in 1967 was informative. It's the right week to think of Ali.

Did we appreciate him? Did we despise him? This was the day he was called to be drafted into the Army, and unequivocally said no. He did not hide or ignore the summons. He simply said no, and stood to face prison and the end of his career for his ideals.

A single Page 1 headline in the April 27, 1967 Chicago Tribune summarized it all: "Clay dodges army; Cubs lose; Sox win."

Two years after he changed his name, the Tribune still called him by what he labeled his "slave name."

We are a nation always splintered at the midpoint of sane and irrational, and he enunciated that divide more than most. To some of us, he was a hero and would always be that. To others, he was a cowardly shirker who took on a foreign religion just to avoid serving.

But when he set us all straight that month, it did not change any minds about him. The same among my newsroom friends and colleagues who despised him before, despised him even more. It is an illusion that newspaper newsrooms in those days were bastions of free-thinking liberals. They weren't.

In that environment, Ali was a topic loaded with risks. I lost friends because I admired Ali, and what he meant. I regretted how they felt. Perhaps those old friends all felt the same regret about me.

That year teetered on several fulcrums. In a December Harris poll, 40 percent of Americans didn't think people who were against the war in Vietnam even had the right to peacefully demonstrate against the war.

More dramatically, 56 percent in a 1968 Gallup poll approved of Chicago police beating anti-war protestors at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

As the Roper Poll at Cornell noted: "The view that the U.S. had made a mistake in sending troops to Vietnam steadily increased from 32 percent to 45 percent."

Even at the end of 1967, the war still had majority support.

Not all of the animosity about Ali was Islam and the Vietnam War. He was Black and defiant. White America did not like either of those two qualities. He might have been the first deliberate manifestation of Black Lives Matter.

Two years earlier Malcolm X had been killed, and an April hence Martin Luther King would be dead. Another year passed, and Bobby Kennedy, too, would be taken from us.

Heroes fell when assassins spoke. One hero lived.

Then the stage would belong to Ali. He proved to be even stronger and more resilient than the historical stage he strode. He had a loud voice, and he used it.

In case anyone had doubts about him, he told them clearly that spring.

"I ain't draft dodging. I ain't burning no flag. I ain't running to Canada. I'm staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I've been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain't going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people.

"If I want to die, I'll die right here, right now, fightin' you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won't even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won't even stand up for me right here at home."

Ali is a manifest proof of a theory: We are thoroughly though unconsciously racist as a nation and have always been, though we seldom recognize the animosity, even now. There is very little verifiable proof that we have figured out our national responsibility in who we are and why. In large ways, we are deeply, adamantly mistaken about ourselves.

We do not like to work on more accurate memories. It's too hard to fight with your conscience.

Ali stirred us up, and did so deliberately. He was a showman and provocateur.

His ring showbiz persona was calculated - and mostly scripted - and was shaped originally by pro wrestler "Gorgeous George" Wagner.

In a 1969 interview with the Associated Press's Hubert Mizel, Ali revealed that he met with Gorgeous George in Las Vegas in 1961, and the wrestler inspired him to use wrestling bragging when he did interviews. Ali was almost always on stage.

Ali wanted to provoke some and entertain others. Be a poet. Rhyme. Captivate. Infuriate. Entrance. Brag outlandishly. Be bigger than boxing. And dare the world to ignore you. But, as Wagner noted, he would have 13,000 paid customers in the arena. Generations of pro wrestlers have followed the same script. Among other skills, Ali was a writer of his own poetry.

Eventually he could not defeat Parkinson's disease, and it took him.

But even at the end, Ali dared us to ignore him. Just try. But we could not. Eventually most of the nation's anger at Ali had drained away with the years, to be replaced with admiration and affection.

I admired the gentle, elderly Ali, but I loved the young, angry Ali more.

As Ali once wrote:

I've wrestled with alligators.
I've tussled with a whale.
I done handcuffed lightning.
And throw'd thunder in jail.

You cannot ignore the Greatest of All Time.

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David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was BMW Is The Answer To The Begged Question. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on May 13, 2021