Ali Changed the World Outside of the Ring
Saturday, February 8, 20141 Comment
Courtesy, The Trials of Muhammad Ali
Many see Muhammad Ali as the greatest boxer of all time. However, it’s important to remember that Ali was and is inspiring to many people who see Ali as a fighter against unjust war and a proponent of Black Power.
The Trials of Muhammad Ali, a recent documentary by Bill Siegel, focuses on Ali’s famous decision to be a conscientious objector to serving in the Vietnam War and Ali’s strength in following through with his decision.
The film includes interviews with people connected to Ali’s life in different ways, including Louis Farrakhan, today’s leader of the Nation of Islam; Khalilah Ali, Ali’s former wife; and Robert Lipsyte, a sports journalist who wrote about Ali for the New York Times. These interviews are interspersed throughout the documentary with archival footage including footage of Malcolm X, who was a great friend of Ali and footage of Muhammad Ali himself. The film reveals a man who was much more complicated and much more political than those who describe Ali as “charismatic” or “a great athlete” would have us think.
Growing up with a working class family in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali, who was named Cassius Clay at the time, dedicated his life to boxing at the age of 14. After winning the Olympic title in 1960 in Rome, many involved in the boxing world came to believe that Ali was destined for a great career. Soon Ali was signed by a Kentucky Managing Group, all made up of white capitalists. Archival footage of the Managing Group in the film reveals one of the managers saying that the group “owns” Cassius Clay.
As the documentary shows, while Ali gained success in the boxing ring, he became more and more political. He became friends with the black liberation leader Malcolm X, and soon became affiliated with the Nation of Islam (NOI), a black Muslim group, and black separatist group in the United States.
At one point the film discusses a moment in Ali’s life before he joined the Nation of Islam. He went to an NOI school in Chicago and soon told everyone there to get his autograph because he would soon be heavyweight champion of the world by the age of 21. His future wife, Khalilah Ali, refused to get an autograph with the name Cassius Clay until Clay changed his name to no longer be the same name as his former slave owner. The great feat of achieving heavyweight champion of the world did not occur until Ali was 22, but it came with a shock when he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964.
Soon after winning the title Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. However, as the film mentions, many of Ali’s future fighters and journalists covering his fights would not call Ali by his new name and instead call him Cassius Clay. Ali, however, refused to answer to people who called him by his old name, and as Dave Zirin expressed in his book A People’s History of Sports in the United States, you could tell the politics of someone by the name they called Muhammad Ali.
Ali became a conscientious objector to serving in the Vietnam War in 1966. Legally he refused to fight as a Minister of the Nation of Islam that preached peace. However, Ali also refused to fight because he was against the war politically. He has famous quotes about the Vietnam War, including, “I ain’t got nothing against the Vietcong.”
The film provides priceless archival footage of when Ali said, “no, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end…Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
For over three years Ali went through political trials, appealing a decision by an all-white jury to fine him 10,000 dollars and send him to five years in prison for not going to war in Vietnam. Ali spent time in exile as a result of not going to war. From March 1967 to October 1970 he could not box in the ring and was stripped of his heavyweight title. Not in jail because he posted bail, the film features archival footage of Ali speaking for the NOI across the United States including on university campuses, encouraging dissent against the war and encouraging others to join the Black Power movement.
During Ali’s time objecting to the war in Vietnam, he had the support of many people around the world who were against a war that infringed upon Vietnam’s rights to national self-determination and committed atrocities against the Vietnamese people. He also had the support of his former wife. Khalilah Ali supported Ali’s decision, saying in the film that she told him, “once you sign up for the army, then you’re their slave forever.”
The documentary discusses further hardships that Ali went through during his years in exile showing that he sacrificed a lot to object to the War in Vietnam. By 1970 a USA Supreme Court decision overruled the decisions of lower courts and Ali was allowed to freely fight again and reclaim his heavyweight title, continuing his amazing career.
The documentary ends by discussing Ali’s life today. Ali’s daughter Hana Ali assures the viewer that her father is now happy and content.
There is not doubt that many activists, athletes, and progressive people all over the world are inspired by Ali’s great political and athletic contributions today. The point is to appreciate both his athletic contributions and his political contributions, if you want to have an understanding of Ali’s greatness.