American Culture

Muhammad Ali turns 70: Happy Birthday, Champ

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

Most of you know the basics. Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1940s and 1950s. Olympic greatness. Sonny Liston. Draft dodger. Muslim. One of the most dramatic comebacks in sports history.

Social activist. Global icon. The Greatest.

And for one working class white kid growing up in the North Carolina outback, his very first African-American role model.

Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.

No Viet Cong ever called Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali a nigger, but a lot of people I grew up with (including very close family members, I’m ashamed to say) sure did. Ali was everything that terrified the white South. He was physically dominating (with all the undercurrents that implies). He was “uppity”¬†incarnate. He was unAmerican for refusing to go to Vietnam. He was the devil for converting to Islam. And deep down, the part that scared them the worst was this: they understood, I think, that he was smarter than they were, too.

The problem was, I never believed that I was supposed to hate him. Maybe it was my age – I wasn’t quite old enough to take offense at the Vietnam thing. All I really knew about the war was what I saw on television, and every night they’d show the number of boys killed that day in the fighting. I don’t recall thinking about this in anything like deep, philosophical terms, but if I had I imagine I might have figured Vietnam was well worth dodging.

As for the Islam thing, well, all us crackers were afraid of blacks. Especially crowds of them demanding stuff. But … even if I was young and ignorant and irrationally afraid of blacks, I wasn’t afraid of him. He didn’t seem to asking for anything unreasonable and he wasn’t hurting anybody. Maybe I thought that if we met he’d like me, too.

But I was just a kid. All I really knew was what I saw: Ali was brilliant. He was objectively the best fighter alive and he was also fun. His charisma didn’t just fill the room, it overwhelmed the entire world. You could feel it, almost tangibly, even through the little 13″ black and white TV in our living room in Wallburg, NC. He said he was the greatest and it was obviously so, especially for a smart-aleck kid from the “it ain’t bragging if it’s true” school of thought.

At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.

Today Muhammad Ali, the most famous man in the world, turns 70, and we as a nation, as a species, are better for knowing him. It’s even more certain that I’m a better person because of the courage and verve with which he lived his life.

A life that I hope is nowhere near over. Happy Birthday, Champ.

I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.

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