I’ve had the somewhat odd experience the last two Junes of being on location when something historic happened. In 2015 I was at the Library of Congress, in a seminar room with windows looking out at the Supreme Court, when the Court handed down its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. In 2016, I was in Louisville’s Galt House, in an 8th-floor room with a view of the Muhammad Ali Center, which I visited May 31 for the first time, and which four days later–in spite of the rain (read that as a metaphor, perhaps)–became a memorial for The Greatest, who passed away at the age of 74. (Note: I’m not trying to equate the two, or their significance–just noting that in both cases, I’ve been in an interesting setting to reflect on history.)
Already by the time I walked over to the memorial on Saturday morning, national and international media were on-site, most of them hunkered down under pop-up tents and with cameras trained on either the memorial, or the stairs up which visitors were making their way.
The eulogies quickly appeared in print, on the web, and on TV, but the comments on social media were equally interesting. A number of my friends and acquaintances posted quotes, commented on Ali’s significance–and in some cases criticized both Ali and those mourning his passing. A few were dismissive of his status as “just a sports star,” while others resented his refusal to “serve his country.” And it’s those criticisms I want to focus on, because I think they miss the point of Ali: that his rejection of the draft and refusal to fight in Vietnam, and his unapologetically confrontational comments on race in the U.S., served his country in a way that made him more than a sports star. (If you’re unfamiliar with all this, check out “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” a brief essay from the Gilder Lehrman Institute.)
We aren’t always accustomed to cultural icons making political statements. Remember the controversy about the Oscars earlier this year, and the speeches in which several actors called for greater environmental consciousness, action on climate change, and attention to race and diversity? Entertainers and celebrities risk their earning power when they use their fame as a platform to express political ideals. When the Dixie Chicks, a country band, blasted George W. Bush and the Iraq war in 2003, their sales plummeted and they lost endorsement deals, among other consequences. With marketing teams and agents managing the public images and careers of athletes, musicians, and actors, it’s more notable when those figures are outspoken and opinionated than when they’re not. Michael Jordan may be the archetype, in some ways–a brand unto himself, but bland (“inoffensive,” if you’d prefer) to an extreme.
Ali’s boxing, and then his decisions involving the draft and his statements on civil rights, made him a cultural icon and a political figure, one of the United States’s most visible black citizens. His fame as an athlete provided him the platform–the audience, the media access, and the economic resources to remain independent and maintain his stance when he was unable to box–to not only express his opinion, but demonstrate his willingness to sacrifice a great deal of good will and money. This was citizen action not through the act of voting to express an individual political position, but through advocacy and persuasion and modeling.
In my class on American Wilderness last semester, we naturally read Thoreau and Emerson (bear with me a moment here). One piece of our discussion of their work was their effort to construct a national literature to help define a distinct American identity, rooting both American letters and nationalism in the United States’ unique relationship with the natural world. They embraced their Americanness, and Americans claim them.
But Thoreau also famously refused to pay taxes to a state government that was complicit in racial slavery and the Mexican-American War, spent time in jail as a consequence, and wrote Civil Disobedience to explain his rationale. In that essay, he pointed to a tension between individual conscience and legislation and argued that men can “serve the state with their consciences also.” That contribution was no less a contribution to his project of encoding American identity in American letters than his celebration of nature.
And I think it’s also a key to understanding Ali. Both sought to articulate what it means to be an American. Both engaged in a similar project, and at times in similar ways. Where Thoreau sought economic independence by simplifying his needs during his experiment at Walden Pond, Ali could lean on his existing wealth for economic support as he endangered his earning power with political action. Where Thoreau sought to contribute to a national canon that would perpetuate American ideals, Ali used his existing fame to highlight the uneven application of those professed American ideals. Both identified racism and imperialism as American practices at odds with the nation’s professed ideals, and both worked to hold it accountable to those ideals. In short, neither rejected his nation. Instead, each seized on the more admirable characteristics of his country–the ability to act and speak in accord with one’s conscience–to combat its least admirable practices, acting alike to serve a nation not as it was, but as they believed it should be.
I will admit one major difference.
Ali was the better poet.
“I’ve wrestled with alligators,/I’ve tussled with a whale./I done handcuffed lightning/And throw thunder in jail./You know I’m bad./Just last week, I murdered a rock,/Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick./I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”–Muhammad Ali