(Next Avenue is republishing this 2014 article in honor of the late Muhammad Ali, who died at 74 last night.)
What boxing great Muhammad Ali accomplished inside the ring made him a legend, but what he did outside the ring is arguably just as important.
In fact, it is impossible to appreciate the phenomenon of Ali without understanding the challenges he faced when he wasn’t wearing boxing gloves, particularly during the most volatile years of the civil rights movement.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali, premiering this month on PBS’s Independent Lens, focuses on the years between 1967 and 1970, when Ali was banned from boxing for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War. It was during that time that he made the transition from Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champion Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, champion of the world.
In Academy Award-nominated director Bill Siegel’s documentary, Ali’s decision not to go to war, and his conviction to stick by that decision no matter what the consequences, is the prism through which Ali’s true character is revealed.
Though he owned the most fearsome fists in the world, Ali remained devoted throughout his life to promoting peace through his belief in Islam. He traveled the world as an ambassador for a religion that, he felt, few people truly understood.
“There’s a big difference between killing people in war and fighting people in the boxing ring,” Ali proclaimed — but this was a distinction many people, particularly white people, did not accept. Many thought of Ali as a privileged American celebrity who owed it to his country to fight and considered his unwillingness to go to Vietnam an act of cowardice, if not treason. It took tremendous courage for Ali to proclaim himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. On April 28, 1967, the day of his announcement, he was the heavyweight champion of the world.
Almost immediately after the announcement, he was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title, fined $10,000, sentenced to five years in prison and banned from boxing altogether, which would cost him millions of dollars.
But Ali never wavered: “No, I will not go 10,000 miles to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth,” he said over and over again on national television. “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.”
Ali risked — and lost — everything to remain true to his beliefs, and by doing so elevated himself to an almost mythical place in American culture.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali includes fascinating archival footage of Ali at his most radical, when he cast off what he called his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, and began publicly indicting white America for its oppression and cruelty toward black people. Also included are some classic clips of Ali arguing with TV host David Frost, and of Ali dressing down the dean of the white intellectual establishment, William F. Buckley.
As much fun as this footage is, it’s also important because it shows how Ali’s personal drama played out against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the evolution of a black national consciousness. Ali, himself, was at the epicenter of the debate between Nation of Islam prophet Elijah Muhammad, who preached the white people were “devils,” Malcolm X, who thought Elijah was too extreme, and Martin Luther King Jr., the minister who thought Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X were dangerously divisive. Malcolm X and King were both assassinated during this period, which only motivated Ali, a follower of Elijah, to intensify his rhetoric.
In speeches at Muslim gatherings and on college campuses, Ali comes off as a defiant crusader for “peaceful Islam” and a firebrand for the cause of black freedom.
The picture of Ali the man is rounded out by interviews with his brother, second wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali, New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and others who knew him. What emerges is a much more complete picture of Ali as a complex man who, even though he refused to go to war, spent his life battling on numerous fronts.
Ali never went to jail, and eventually the case against him was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. By the time that decision was handed down, Ali was arguably the most famous person in the world.
When he returned to the boxing ring to reclaim his title, enthralling the public with epic fights against Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Ali entered a rarified realm of superstardom. He was man, myth, symbol and celebrity, all rolled into one.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali also contains footage of Ali later in life, accepting the Medal of Honor from President George Bush and lighting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Olympic games. His body ravaged by Parkinson’s disease — he’s not the same man he was, but there’s still some fight left in him.
These images are touching, but apt. Fighting was Ali’s “comfort zone,” says his second wife Khalilah Camacho-Ali, and when he was in that zone, “no one could beat him.”
Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.