Friday, June 3, 2016

Muhammad Ali: We lost one of the great ones today.

“Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong.” Muhammad Ali

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

Muhammad Ali is dead. I have to write something about this, I can't get it out of my head any other way. The last time I felt like this was when John Lennon died. It’s not that I was such a fan of Lennon’s, it’s that I felt a part of my life had ended and losing Ali is the same, perhaps more so as he has been with me longer.

I never went to many fights, but I recall my father taking me to see the Ali Cooper fight when I was 14 years old. We were sat way up in the back and the figures seemed so small. Ali, or Cassius Clay as he was called then, almost got beat by Cooper that day but came back to win the match.I had never seen a man move so fast, so gracefully and yet with intense power.

Four years later I saw the Clay Terrell fight on TV, or clips from it. Clay was calling him names, real nasty names and I felt sorry for Terrell. Ali kept taunting Terrell asking him “what’s my name?”. He called him a “nigger” as far as I can remember and, even though my parents had their conservative side, this was a word they would not have condoned. I knew it was a bad word and I never heard my parents use it. I thought Ali was a cruel man, I couldn’t understand why a person who was so adamant in his condemnation of the treatment Africans had received in America would humiliate this man so, and in front of all these white people.

But I couldn’t explain lots of things back then. I didn’t understand the significance of a black man changing his name to Ali and adopting a variation of the Muslim faith or giving himself the last name X.

But like so many of us, I came to love Ali. He was popular in England and as I became more political I came to understand why he behaved the way he did. Terrell refused to call him by his name, Mohammad Ali and instead called him Cassius Clay. Most of the US and British media refused to call him by his chosen name they hated him so. When I understood this I understood why Ali did what he did. Terrell had a chance to respect his decision and chose not to. Ali punished him for that.

Ali gave up almost four years of his career when he was in his prime because he refused to turn up for the draft, “I got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” he said. I saw a clip recently of him at some sort of hearing in Washington and some white politician was questioning him and again calling him Mr. Clay. He responded politely numerous times telling this racist pig that this was not his name, his name was Muhammad Ali.

What racist arrogance. The Irish in America, including many famous ones as well as Jews, Italians and other European immigrants changed their names. Would they have been referred to in any way other than by the name they had chosen? Of course not, but Ali was a cocky black man. He was outspoken, smart, he was not afraid, damn him, he told the truth, he told the world about US Apartheid.

I read his autobiography a long time ago, some 25 years or more and remember him describing driving along in the South somewhere and seeing this black man walking along, he had been castrated. I think he met that man some time later in his life. Castration was not an unknown to black men in the South.

Ali is perhaps the most widely known sports figure in the world. Maybe the most widely known celebrity. Today he is loved and respected by white people, black folks, Asians, people from all corners of this earth. He was a political character. He was a principled individual. My Irish friends have told me how him, the Panthers and Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement influenced the struggle of Irish Catholics for equality.

A giant died today and we will all miss him. I wish I had met him, had the opportunity to shake his hand and thank him for helping me understand the world in which I live.

“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”
Muhammad Ali, born January 17, 1942 died June 3, 2016

More on Ali.

1 comment:

Sean said...

Thank you Richard. Ali affected all. I was brought up in a right wing pro British family and milieu in Northern Ireland. My relatives because of their right wing and anti civil rights views hated Ali. This, Ali, was one of the things that put me of those views. I later emigrated to Canada. I met a right wing emigrant from Northern Ireland in the mine where I was working at the time. He too was frothing at the mouth for somebody, anybody to beat that "big Mouth N...." I always wanted Ali to win. As You say in your piece Richard Ali had is contradictions. He abandoned Malcolm X. He allowed himself to be separated from MLK as MLK moved towards working class unity and socialism. He eventually ended up being feted by the extreme right wing war criminals such as Bush and co whom he had fought. Like his career in the ring he had his great high points and at the end some humiliations. But by standing against the Vietnam war, by demanding he be treated with respect, by demanding he be called his own chosen name, by giving up years of his career and earnings he won the majority of the world to his side. There are many lessons from the life of Ali. One is that if we want to change the world we have to use humor and life in our talk and speech, not the dry repetition of statistics and droning on. Think about it: "I aint got no quarrel with the Vietcong." Maybe the best known anti Vietnam war slogan of all. And just off the top of his head. Jesus Christ listen to the revolutionaries amongst us. When was the last time you heard one of them say they were the greatest, the prettiest, and with that taunting glimmer of a smile. I smile here as I remember his bragging. What a character. And there was another character I think off. An Irish emigrant in London. A worker. He put a picket on the US embassy every day for all the years when Ali was forced out of the ring. He was a fighter too. And a PS. What about Trump/ And the Muslims. Ali was a Muslim. maybe even in death he will influence US consciousness and events. That would be good. Or maybe as Ali might have said at his prime: "Ali might have said. Dump the Trump. Sean O'Torain.