Ever since the word came out of Phoenix that Muhammad Ali had gone off to just about the last remaining glory it was his to attain, I’ve had a bit of Walt Whitman’s verse banging around in my head. It’s from Song Of Myself, and it’s just about the most American fragment of poetry I can recall.
Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
It was true of him, and it is certainly true of the country that produced him, because what is America except a massive contradiction in history? It’s right there in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the country’s original birth certificate.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
And there it is, written by a Virginia slaveowner. Dr. King called it a promissory note that had gone unredeemed by the country that had been founded on that revolutionary assertion. But it was more than that. It was a land mine in history, exploding over and over again, usually in bloody murder, but also in the bloodless language of law and custom. If he is remembered as nothing else, let Muhammad Ali be remembered as a child of that great contradiction, as are we all. Even the name he abandoned as his “slave name” had a story that doubled back on itself in fascinating and, yes, violent ways.
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The original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a white man from Kentucky, a loud, belligerent and uncompromising abolitionist in a border state where that could get you killed. And people tried. A guy named Sam Brown shot Clay in the chest and Clay, wielding a Bowie knife, was still able to wound Brown and throw him off a river embankment. Later, the Turner gang came after him and, after literally bringing a knife to a gunfight, Clay killed one of them and ran the rest of them off. He published an abolitionist newspaper and, to protect his office, he installed a pair of small cannons there. It didn’t help. A mob seized his office anyway, but Clay moved his operation across the river to Cincinnati. Eventually, Clay purchased freedom for a group of slaves. One of those slaves was the great-grandfather of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., who renounced the name and took a new one that was as revolutionary an act in its time as were the cannons that the original Cassius Clay had placed in his office. The test of a revolutionary act in the time since the original American Revolution is how well the act solves the basic contradiction in which the country was born. That tension in the country’s intellectual DNA made America the only country in history that could have produced a Muhammad Ali.
His was an American life, in all of its life, love, and anger, in its volatile mix of justice and injustice and then justice again, finally, when eight aging white men on the United States Supreme Court (Thurgood Marshall recused himself from Clay v. United States), told the other aging white men of the federal law enforcement bureaucracy that it was time for them to stop screwing around with this particular American life. His was an American life because, born of that most basic American contradiction, he fought for the country of his birth against its government, just as Edward Abbey said a patriot always should be ready to do. That is what an American does to live a fully American life. We are all the children of revolution.
As an athlete, and purely as an athlete, he was as revolutionary as anyone who ever lived—a big man with fire in his hands and lightning in his feet. He lost what likely were the best years of his athletic life and when he came back, thicker and tougher, he came back to a heavyweight division that was loaded with power and talent. It wasn’t just George Foreman and Joe Frazier, either. It was powerful men like Ken Norton and Ron Lyle and Earnie (The Acorn) Shavers, a bombardier of the first order who once scored a first-round knockout of Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw. It was in this brutal and unforgiving company that Ali discovered a talent he’d heretofore never needed—he found that he could take a punch. It was this knowledge that was the final deal he made with the demon of his profession.
As an American, of that time in history, when a turbulent age produced icons who died young in limousines in Dallas and on balconies in Memphis, and in ballrooms in Harlem, and on the kitchen floors of Los Angeles hotels, there were few others in his weight class. He fought those same opponents, and unlike Dr. King and the Kennedys and Malcolm X, he outlasted them. He proved to himself that he could take a punch. He fought those opponents and literally won a unanimous decision from the Court. He won particularly decisively on the card of Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote in his concurrence that Ali had demonstrated a fidelity to the tenets of his faith that the government was bound to respect, and who did so in language that echoes through history unto this day.
“War is not the exclusive type of jihad; there is action by the believer's heart, by his tongue, by his hands, as well as by the sword,” Douglas wrote. “War and Peace in the Law of Islam 56. As respects the military aspects it is written: 'The jihad, in other words, is a sanction against polytheism and must be suffered by all non-Muslims who reject Islam, or, in the case of the dhimmis (Scripturaries), refuse to pay the poll tax. The jihad, therefore, may be defined as the litigation between Islam and polytheism; it is also a form of punishment to be inflicted upon Islam's enemies and the renegades from the faith. Thus in Islam, as in Western Christendom, the jihad is the bellum justum.' The jihad in the Moslem's counterpart of the 'just' war as it has been known in the West.”
He won not only a personal victory, but a victory for tolerance and religious freedom. He won a victory as decisive as Yorktown in the American Revolution that began in 1776 and, in truth, continues to this day—or ought to continue, at any rate, if we are true to ourselves and remain obligated to, as Lincoln prayed we would, “firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” He won not only a personal victory, but also one that indeed did bind up a bleeding nation’s wounds.
In 1849, in a letter to his publisher, Herman Melville made the point that, “The Declaration Of Independence makes a difference.” He meant that it changed how people should think about themselves, and how they should express themselves. He was talking about the contradiction in the nation’s birth, and he meant that the measure of an American must be how willing he is in his public life to call Jefferson’s great bluff. I am created equal? I have certain unalienable rights? OK, watch me exercise them to their fullest. Or is your country a lie? Raise or call?
That was the implicit message of Muhammad Ali’s life. He was a great American athlete. He was an essential American. He was a powerful pivot in American history. He was such a better American citizen than were the people who denigrated him for his brashness, who spat on his religion, who called him a coward because he wouldn’t be an accessory to mindless slaughter, and who hounded him out of his profession at the height of his powers and influence. They were the American government. He was America, the great and self-evident contradiction of a nation, and that, as Melville warned us, makes all the difference.