Just received an email from one of my students informing me that Muhammad Ali had passed at the age of 74. I feel empty inside. Muhammad Ali reinvented what it meant to be an athlete in American society, paid the price for his courage, and ultimately became a folk hero even to those who originally rejected his transformation. I cannot think of the 60's without his face and his words. Like many great athletes before and after him, he was charismatic as well as supremely talented. He entranced people with his lightning movements in the ring, his poetic predictions, his rare physical beauty. But at the height of his popularity, he identified with a black nationalist religious organization that turned the ideology of white supremacy on its head, changed his name, and ultimately, was willing to give up his entire career and the wealth associated with it for refusing induction in the military during an unpopular war. No athlete of his stature, black or white, had ever taken a step of this kind. He was excoriated for this by sportswriters and much of the public, but became a folk hero to many young people,white as well as black, who felt the same way about the War in Vietnam.
This step elevated him into a human rights figure whose stature transcended sports. When he returned to the ring in the late 60's, his fights became major political events as well as athletic contests. His first fight with Joe Frazier, which I saw at a theater on 96th street and Broadway with thousands of people outside trying to get in, was the most exciting single sports event I was ever part of. Everyone I knew was watching. It was as if all the events reshaping our lives-war, assassinations, racial upheavals- were with us in the ring.
Ali remained with us as a public figure for many years after, his career outlasting the War that helped define his public identity. As his speed and skills diminished, he continued to win big fights through guile and courage, taking as much punishment as his rival and nemesis Joe Frazier had endured. His courage, which ultimately took a toll on his speech and brain function, won him the admiration of even many who had deplored his political stance. He became an American and global icon, a survivor as well as maker of history, a symbol of endurance and vulnerability as well as an athlete of rare beauty and skill, and a public figure willing to sacrifice wealth and fame for his beliefs.
Now he has left us, Our country is a very different place than it was when he came upon the scene in the early 60's.
More than any sports figure of his time, he helped to change it.