NEW YORK: I was not yet a teenager when I wandered into the living room of our rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. I saw my parents sitting silently by our black-and-white television, listening as a young black boxer, Muhammad Ali, talked.
He was saying he would not serve in the Army and he would not fight those Vietcong.
“My conscience won’t let me go and shoot them,” Ali said in that rat-a-tat-tat stream of consciousness style of his. “They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
“How can I shoot those poor people?” he added. “Just take me to jail.”
“Just take me to jail.” Those words registered as astonishing. Here was this great, sexy fighter on the cusp of fame and fortune, a physically pretty man who recited doggerel and who graced the covers of magazines. And he was willing to march off to prison to protest an unjust war.
We celebrate athletic courage. Watch a hoopster hit a spinning, fall-away jumper in the last seconds, see a center fielder race toward a fence heedless of the possible injury, applaud a fullback who catapults into the end zone, and we talk of courage.
Courage is being 24 years old and risking all, the anger of newspaper and television reporters and millions of white Americans who see you as a public enemy, to say no to a war.
Others spoke and acted in the Ali tradition. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black-power sign at the Olympics in 1968 after medaling in the 200-meter race. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has spoken out often and thoughtfully on society’s ills.
The point is not whether you agree with their every utterance, any more than that was so with regard to Ali.
To see athletes — young men and women who could rightly enough claim obsession with sport and endorsements — embrace the larger world and its discontents is moving.
Ali reincarnated himself as champion, three times losing and regaining his title, and that gave to his life narrative a metaphorical power.
Here’s Norman Mailer’s classic account in the “The Fight.” Ali would “slide off a punch and fall back into the ropes with all the calm of a man swinging in the rigging. All the while, he used his eyes.
They looked like stars, and he feinted Foreman out with his eyes, flashing white eyeballs of panic he did not feel which pulled Foreman through into the trick of lurching after him on a wrong move.”
He had listened as young white men berated him for 1970: 1971: resisting the draft. Then, eyes flashing, he came back at them.
“You talking about me about some draft and all you white boys are breaking your neck to get to Switzerland and Canada and London,” he said. “If I’m going to die, I’ll die now right here, fighting you.”
The words speak to a passion forever young, and brave. New York Times