The rise to stardom for Muhammad Ali and his subsequent domination as a heavyweight fighter in the world of professional boxing did not occur without the champion’s commitment early in his career to becoming “the greatest” – a description of his abilities which he maintained well before he had the skills to support such a claim.
But after surviving a childhood marked by trauma fueled by Jim Crow laws and segregation in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky and the rantings of a father known for his propensity for domestic abuse, Ali discovered boxing. It would serve as the critical conduit to both a way out and the entry point to a more promising and positive way of life.
As the first part of this series reported, Black boxers have routinely been forced to contend with more than one opponent – the challenger within the ropes and white-dominated society which stood outside of the ring. And with white promoters controlling the industry and its potentially lucrative purse strings, Black men who hoped to reap the rewards often had little choice but to yield to multiple forms of racially motivated oppression.
But Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, refused to submit, remaining adamant in his quest to assert himself as a Black man who lived without the shackles of white supremacy. It would be a decision that cost him much but in the long run but would one day gain him the adulation and respect of millions worldwide.
Much has been written about Ali including his many shortcomings and personal demons. But few will ever forget his lighting of the Olympic flame during the opening of the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta and the revelation that Parkinson’s disease, his greatest foe ever, had finally got the champ on the ropes in a fight which he could not hope to win.
After the ceremony, Ali said to reporters that he believed he’d been stricken with the condition as a reminder from God that “God alone is the greatest.”
But who was Ali? Do we really know?
If you’re anxious for answers, you might consider taking a look at a new documentary produced by Ken Burns which premiered on Sept. 18 on PBS. It takes viewers on an eight-hour ride and features both rarely-seen footage as well as commentary from those who knew Ali best – shedding greater light on the champion and the complex world in which he lived.
During the recent Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual conference, Burns sat down with Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in an interview about the documentary, touching on issues that included the motivation behind Burns’ decision to develop the project and highlighting several of the things he discovered about Ali in the process.
Burns said the parallels between Ali’s journey and the fight for civil rights among African Americans that reached unparalleled heights during Ali’s lifetime served as one of several reasons for Burns committing himself to the project.
“Ali was one of the most important people in America – perhaps even the greatest athlete in the 20th century,” Burns said. “And his life intersected with all of the important themes of the century, especially during its latter half: race, politics, war, courage and freedom.”
“Many documentaries on Ali have focused on one particular fight or a few of his fights or his refusal to join the U.S. Army. We wanted something comprehensive – from his childhood in the segregated south to his death five years ago in 2016 from Parkinson’s disease,” Burns said.
Burns pointed out that Ali evolved from being a divisive figure, often braggadocious when engaging with the media, to a man whose commitment to his faith led him to refuse to be inducted into the army and to willingly accept the outcome of his decision. But he would stand fast in voicing his perspective on other issues that often led to public criticism.
“Ali left this world as a revered figure but that’s not how the world viewed him early in his career,” Burns said. “I wanted to chart that path. If I could have dinner with someone from the past, Ali would be included among the guests with others like Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Abraham Lincoln.”
Learning the Intricacies about Ali
Burns said he thought he knew everything about Ali but to his surprise, he had barely scratched the surface before engaging in extensive research and hours of interviews in preparation for the documentary.
“We often remember him as this loud-mouthed figure who dominated a room until Parkinson’s silenced him,” he said. “But I’m now impressed with his poise which he exhibited even in his early 20s – he understood the stakes of things far beyond those who were guided by more conventional wisdom. I hope people will see him as being more heroic and very complicated. And we don’t hide his darker side which included how he treated Joe Frazier so horribly and the way he mistreated his wives. But he changed and sought to make amends later in his life.”
Burns has made films on Black icons from Jack Johnson to Jackie Robinson. But he said while doing his research for the Ali documentary, he realized things about the champion that undoubtedly provided encouragement for other Blacks who then faced similar forms of discrimination and prejudice on a daily basis.
“Ali redefined what it meant to be a Black man and asserted, ‘I’m Black and beautiful,’” Burns noted. “But it’s his courage which serves as the heart of his story. He was willing to give up things – things which most people refused to give up. Unlike many athletes today who are willing to ‘just shut up and dribble,’ Ali was unwilling to be any less than the man he felt he had to be. He realized the price one had to pay while on earth and understood that a greater price was required in order to gain entrance into heaven. He was willing to pay that price – like the former football star Colin Kaepernick who would be blackballed from the NFL for his views or the two track stars, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who risked it all by raising their fists in protest during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.”
“Many of Ali’s closest friends and family remember how he would often leave home with thousands of dollars in his pockets only to return that evening penniless after hearing stories of people in need and giving them whatever he had – giving them everything he had.”
Burns said he remained intrigued by a notion that began to dominate Ali’s beliefs in the twilight years of his life – the idea that a “tallying angel” existed who counted up both the good and bad things a person did throughout their life. At judgment day, Ali believed that he, like others, would be held accountable.
“Ali once shared with his biographer how he regretted some of the choices he had made: turning his back on Malcolm X, the way he once relished in humiliating Frazier and the bad things he did to women for his own enjoyment including how he disrespected his wives,” Burns said.
Shouldering the Burden of the Black Man
“He couldn’t change the past but eventually he became committed to walking along a different path where he carried a love for everyone around him. He was thoroughly an American and committed to practicing his faith and willingly accepted the price which awaited him because of his determination to be respected. He was a proud Black man and a devoted American Muslim and he refused to be anyone less.”
“Muhammad Ali was authentic – his words were born of real convictions. When Parkinson’s made it impossible for him to speak, he spoke even larger by remaining consistent in his views. Eventually he realized that in many ways he not only personally carried the Black man’s burden but that he shouldered that burden for millions of other African Americans. And he carried it proudly until his death,” Burns said.
In the third and final part of this series, we will examine the life of the legendary boxer Jack Johnson who remained determined to live a life unencumbered by the restrains of racism that dominated American society in the early 20th century and ultimately led to his demise. But first he would destroy all of his opponents in their quest to defeat him and become white America’s long-awaited “Great White Hope.”