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Prepare for Muhammad Ali to be Kinged

Fighting poverty, racism and militarism at the core of Ali’s and King’s message

Most black folk, on the one hand, honor our lost racial justice warriors by exchanging stories and memories of how they empowered us to cherish our black skin as a source of strength, not bemoan it as a mark of inferiority. Far too many white folk, on the other hand, replace the essential ingredients of these warriors’ characters to make them more palatable, thereby destroying their true nature once Father Time has extinguished their fiery oratory.

Martin Luther King Jr., a racial justice warrior who ripped off the mask to reveal the rank hypocrisy on the face of American democracy, incessantly hollered for a dramatic readjustment of the country’s political priorities. Yet, he has been posthumously reduced in popular culture to a milquetoast colorblind moderate he would never recognize as himself.

Muhammad Ali, similarly, since Parkinson’s disease deprived us all of his eloquence, has been abducted and put on that same train King once rode on, a train that stops only when a radical black man has been transformed into a safe Negro teddy bear.

And with Ali’s death we should expect this train — this process — to accelerate.

King viewed equal treatment under the law only as an appetizer, something to whet the appetite until we could feast upon the main course assured to us in the Promised Land. Black folk, in fact, all Americans, should only become fully satisfied when society underwent “radical redistribution of wealth and economic power … .”

“True compassion,” he said, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” And thus, he fully embraced the ideology of democratic socialism, believing American society and American capitalism needed to be recast in order to have a truly egalitarian society unburdened by the dual scourges of prejudice and poverty.

His democratic socialist beliefs fueled his calls for a radical redistribution of wealth and a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged that guaranteed annual income for all families below the poverty level, a right to education and free health care for disadvantaged families and a right to decent and affordable housing.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right, chats with Greenwood, Mississippi residents on their front porch on July 21, 1964, during his door-to-door campaign, telling all them to register to vote and support his Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.

Martin Luther King Jr. (R) chats with Greenwood, Mississippi, residents on their front porch on July 21, 1964, during his door-to-door campaign, telling all them to register to vote and support his Mississippi Freedom Democratic party.

AP Photo/Jim Bourdier

King steadfastly opposed what he termed the triple evils of “poverty, racism and militarism.” And when he publicly declared his opposition to the Vietnam War, he began articulating an increasingly harsh critique of American violence abroad. Employing bombs, napalm, and bullets to advance an anti-Communism goal was morally wrong because of its inherent violence and socially irresponsible because it sapped America of economic resources required to ameliorate widespread poverty.

“I knew that America,” he declared, “would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some destructive suction tube.”

This is not the King most Americans revere, though. The political right has turned him into an anti-affirmative action crusader. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that, “It is the opponents of race-conscious public policy who today speak in the name of values that King championed.” And the National Review contended that, by supporting affirmative action, “The civil-rights movement has strayed far from the color-blind principles of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Their depictions, however, betray history.

“A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years,” King insisted, “must now do something special for the Negro.” And he defended the constitutionality of affirmative action by noting that society, with the GI Bill, enacted a similar policy on behalf of veterans.

Washington Post journalist Juan Williams, two decades after King’s assassination, observed the transformation King had undergone:

“As a national symbol, King has become something he never was in life — a lukewarm liberal, an Uncle Tom stick figure, a sentimental man. King died young, at 39. But 20 years later, in 1988, he is best remembered as if he had died when he was a fuzzy-headed old man. Today his image is cheapened to the point of being meaningless. Everyone seems to feel free to borrow his image. Ads for everything from soft drinks to computers appear at the time of King’s birthday with his picture part of the design.”

In 1966, King had a 63 percent unfavorability rating. In 2011, 94 percent viewed him favorably, a reality that could not be but for the changing of his true essence.

Centuries of racism had beaten black folk into being submissive and deferential as a self-preservation strategy against the tireless cudgel of psychological and physical brutality. A people with slouched backs and eyes fixed toward the ground, saw in Ali a reason to straighten their posture and lift their heads. As former Georgetown Hoyas basketball coach John Thompson said, “Ali pulled us away from that docility … .”

That black folk would improve their self-perception upon basking in Ali’s incandescent self-assurance, flowed naturally from the purposeful work of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. The Black Muslims consciously depicted Ali as unreliant upon white America for his success and, therefore, the object of white scorn. Elijah Muhammad, as California State University-Sacramento professor Maureen Smith wrote, “used Ali as an ‘example of righteousness for blacks who had been instilled with a false sense of racial inferiority by white Christian Americans.’ ”

And black folk adored Ali for how he made them feel. Ali, for example, constantly visited black schools at the behest of teachers. These teachers, in the effort to shatter the images of black inferiority that American culture infused into black spirits, wanted their pupils to bathe in the aura of a black hero. And failing to situate this truth near the center of Ali’s essence obliterates a pillar of his social importance.

Many Americans, particularly older whites, detested Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War, branding him unpatriotic, particularly against the backdrop of boxer Joe Louis accepting induction into the Army and allowing himself to be used in World War II propaganda. Ali, for instance, was on a plane experiencing terrifying turbulence and a woman seated across from him pointed at the boxer and hollered: “God is punishing us because he’s on the plane! Forgive us, Jesus! God is punishing us! God wants you off this plane!”

American boxer Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) (left) speaks from a lecturn during the Saviour's Day celebrations at the International Ampitheatre, Chicago, Illinois, February 27, 1965.

American boxer Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) (L) speaks from a lectern during the Saviours Day celebrations at the International Amphitheatre, Chicago, Feb. 27, 1965.

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Americans now have generally softened their take on his views on Vietnam, refashioning him as a man willing to stand up for his principles even when it cost him millions of dollars.

But those principles must be drawn in detail, not glossed over.

Ali articulated his viewpoint well when responding to a white college student who assailed him for dodging the draft:

“If I’m gonna die, I’ll die now, right here, fighting you. You’re my enemy. My enemy’s the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me, in America, for my religious beliefs, and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”

The principles that Ali stood for were interconnected condemnations of militarism and white supremacy. To not speak in these specifics is to sketch Ali in a black-and-white outline easy for white folk to revere, rather than the full, vibrant and radical man who shook the mythology of whiteness.

Ali, after he left the Nation of Islam, rejected the sect’s reprehensible black supremacist teachings. That, though, seems to allow many to conclude Ali distanced himself from all that “crazy race stuff” he used to spout, thereby rendering him a blander, more digestible, figure.

Ali, however, never abandoned his biting critique of American racism and bigotry, never betrayed his understanding of the carnage white supremacy and colonialism had wrought on people of color, never allowed to slide the obligations the country had to heal those wounds. Ali, instead, just simply no longer indicted all white people as belonging to an inherently evil race. Yet, as Louis Moore, a professor of history at Grand Valley State University, notes, Ali leaving the Nation of Islam “lets people off the hook, but he’s still pro-justice and that never changes.”

Folk can appreciate Ali for his charisma or his pugilistic greatness, but his anti-racist and anti-militarism ideals were essential to who he was and why he matters so much.

We mustn’t allow that to be expunged from his record.

Moore perfectly describes the reality that both King and Ali face after death:

“Here’s [Ali] who challenged American racism who at one point was pro-separation [and] challenged American militarism but now I can go to Target and buy a $12 T-shirt. And that speaks to that idea that he’s been kind of MLK’ed. MLK challenged racism; he challenged American militarism. But when we talk about him it’s ‘I Have a Dream.’ When people talk about Ali they talk about ‘float like a butterfly, sting like bee.’ ‘I’m the greatest.’ This kind of Louisville Lip Muhammad Ali. But not Muhammad Ali who challenged America racism and who challenged militarism.”

Much of America still refuses to stare blackness in the face, and recognize it as part of itself.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.