As I am sure everyone has heard by now, world famous boxer, Muhammad Ali has died. Regardless of what you think of boxing or other professional sports, the boxer’s death has sparked some conversation about the Ali’s part in the Civil rights movement and his opposition to the war in Vietnam. This leads us to ask some interesting questions about the movements surrounding Black Athletes in professional sports and the historical racism that has occurred within mainstream sports, all throughout history. An important point to make here is that, despite Muhammed Ali today being praised as a legend by the mainstream Press and politicians, the truth is that these same entities have persecuted and hated Ali and other such figures, for their attempts to stand up against the establishment. The idea of celebrity sports people using the platform given to them to be political, is only allowed when it involves them labelling themselves as proud flag bearers and supporters of a government that murders and kills innocent civilians. It is these racist and supremacist ideas that have convoluted sports and other aspects of our culture, and it is for this reason that we must learn from those who have taken a firm stance against it. By doing this, we can begin to see how capitalism and statism has the potential to affect every aspect of our lives, from how we vote to a simple boxing match.
The origins of American boxing…and its reclamation
As you may or may not expect, boxing has a brutal history. In times of slavery, plantation owners would entertain themselves by having strong slaves fight each other while wearing chains. Even after slavery was abolished and boxing desegregated, it still gave promoters of the sport a chance to make money from the racism running throughout American society. Ironically however, amongst the boxing rings and stadiums sprung ideas of challenging white supremacy. This perhaps first saw its fruition in 1910 with the first black heavyweight Jo Johnson. Despite hysteria from the media over the need for a ‘great white athlete’ to show that white people are stronger than black people, a boxing match with former champion Jim Jefferies saw Johnson knock Jefferies out with ease. Following the fight, race riots erupted throughout the country, with far right hate groups targeting black Americans and even organising to ban boxing. Black athletes, despite often rightly remaining defiant to it, faced the same amount of persecution. This meant that it would be 20 years before there was another black heavyweight champion in boxing.
The next time we saw anti-racist ideas come into play in boxing was with black athlete Joe Louis. Although Louis’ actual stances against racism were limited with him being under strict control by management and the media, his status as a very good boxer represented a lot to black people living in poor communities in the 1930s. In contradiction to the media’s refusal to make the issue of Joe Louis’ success a race issue, German boxer Max Scheming was enthusiastically endorsed by Adolf Hitler as proof of Aryan dominance. This racist fantasy worldview, was only given further comfort when in a 1936 boxing match, Scheming knocked out Louis. This led to further racist rhetoric not just from the Nazis but from the American Press, who in one article disgustingly declare ‘I guess this proves who really is the master race’. This may be why, when Scheming was challenged to a rematch in 1938, The Nazis made sure to close all cinemas and organise radio listening’s, safe in the knowledge that if their proud Aryan athlete could win once, then he could definitely put people’s faith in the racist Nazi order a second time. However, this worldview was utterly decimated when within one round, Louis knocked Scheming out. Immediately after this, Hitler cut all radio signals in Germany angry and embarrassed at this defeat for his ideology. These early examples show boxing as a manifestation of the struggles of black Americans, and more importantly their efforts to overcome them. This of course, leads us to talk about Muhammed Ali.
We are the greatest
Born in Louisville at a time when segregation was still legal, you may be surprised to know that Clay’s early days as an athlete, like many in his profession, saw him behaving in a surprisingly patriotic way to America. Indeed, upon winning his first Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, the young boxer praised America as the ‘greatest’. This patriotic attitude continued until he returned to his home town and found himself being denied service in restaurants and shops, simply because the colour of his skin. This led an outraged Clay to throw his medal, which he had previously been so proud of, in the Ohio River.
Soon after this, the boxer started looking for political answers. He found them in the works of radical civil rights activist Malcom X, who he heard speaking at a meeting. Much to the dismay of the press and less radical factions of the Civil rights movement, the two people as impassioned fighters of different sorts, soon became close political allies. Appropriately then, one of Clays most recent fights upon meeting Malcom X was with Sonny Liston, a strong boxer who had previously worked for a mob breaking the legs of people on picket lines. The fight amazingly resulted in Clay beating Liston, leading the champion to famously declare ‘I am the King of the World’. As a Muslim, Clay initially defined his activism not as a political but as a religious fight, even leading him to turn his back on Malcom X at one point. However, as the black power movement grew and further embroiled both politics and religion, Muhammed Ali became a critical symbol in its politics. An important recognition of the Boxers political influence was in 1965, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, launched a political movement using the symbol of the black panther, and adopting Ali’s famous statement of ‘We are the greatest’ as their political slogan. In fact, as the boxer became more political, so too did his fights. In one incident with Patriotic Black fighter Floyd Patterson, Ali destroyed Patterson well yelling ‘Come on White America…What is my name’. Indeed, Ali’s work informed the racial politics of everyone from Future Black Panther leaders to the Black Lives Matter Movement today.
Refusal to fight in the Vietnam War
One of the most controversial aspects of Muhammad Ali’s politics was his refusal to fight in the war in Vietnam. In 1966, there was still little opposition to the war and the anti-war movement was still small. This may be why it was such a shock to the establishment, when upon being asked to fight in Vietnam, the boxer famously replied ‘Man I aint got no quarrel with them Vietcong’.
Overtime an incredible groundswell of support built up for Ali’s anti-war stance. It was amazing for people to see the athlete throwing his support not just behind the struggle of black people in America, but behind the Vietnamese who were having their lives destroyed by war. Despite constant media harassment and calls for Ali to apologise for his controversial statement, he stood firm in his beliefs. In fact, the overall anti-war position was only strengthened when in 1967, when Martin Luther King Jr. came out against the war stating that ‘we are all victims of the same system of oppression’. MLK and the young boxer soon became friends, sometimes joining each other on protests. These factors led to Ali’s anti-war resistance making front page news, and later in 1967 Ali was prosecuted by an all-white Jury in Houston. The trial resulted in a five year sentence, Ali being stripped of his title and a ruling preventing him from boxing for three and a half years. Despite this, support flooded in from everywhere, including from more moderate figures within the struggle for black liberation like Floyd Patterson, who had previously criticised the radical aspects of Ali’s politics. Indeed, one group of people who understood the threat that support for Ali had posed to their war plan was the US government, who after the boxer’s conviction, immediately voted to extend the draft and to make it a Crime to desecrate the flag. All this was going on while every week, Vietnamese non-combatants were being killed by US forces. While on bail in 1968 Ali spoke at two hundred college campuses, saying the following words:
‘My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called be nigger, they never lynched me they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to Jail’
Ali appealed his sentence and, aided by a strong anti-war tide, was victorious in having it lifted. Despite losing a few fights upon his return to boxing in 1971, the year 1973 saw the famous ‘rumble in the jungle’ fight take place in Zaire (Congo) against George foreman. Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, a close ally of the United States who had killed many people and looted the country’s wealth in order to seize power, had their bets on Ally’s rival to win. Huge political suppression took place before the boxing match, in attempts to silence opposition to the Seko regime and quell fears that Ali might be victories. However, the crowd were behind Ali all the way, and in eight rounds Foreman had exhausted himself, allowing Muhammed Ali to win the fight. The boxers fighting career continued through good times and bad times for the black power movement. Gradually, even aspects of Ali’s personality were absorbed by the mainstream media. However, it is the message of anti-war and anti-racism conveyed through his actions in and outside the ring, that we must remember to this day
Conclusion and the fight of the black athlete
As I said earlier, the thought of athletes using their status to speak out against corruption and injustice is now unthinkable. Some notable examples of it happening today however, include sports teams choosing to wear shirts that support black lives matter, basketball Toni Smith turning her back on an American flag in 2003 and basketball player Josh Howard expressing his feelings on the Iraq war by saying ‘it’s all about oil’. While it is important to remember that these examples often fail to actually change anything, and can often make people caught up more in the world of celebrity then they are already, it is also important not to have aspects of culture and entertainment co-opted by people who are only interested in making the case for war. Throughout this blog post, I have made the argument that things such as boxing and other forms of entertainment are often bound up with politics. Muhammed Ali and those like him are perfect examples of this. Overall, while the revolution will not happen with just a simple boxing match, by reclaiming aspects of our world that have been stolen from us, we can truly make ourselves ‘the greatest’.