I really didn’t actually grow up with Muhammad Ali. I just grew up during his time. He was born in Kentucky, I in South Carolina but for some reason I was drawn to his charisma when he was still billed as Cassius Clay. Sometimes I was drawn to him for some not so nice reasons. I remember first seeing him on a small, fuzzy, black and white TV when he won Olympic gold in 1960. This was before he became the “brash” legend and self-proclaimed “The Greatest” who swaggered his way to the 1964 Heavyweight Championship over the “big, ugly bear” Sonny Liston. In the rural South where I lived he was not the “much loved” Muhammad Ali.
In the middle Sixties, the teenaged me was still drinking a bitter brew of white supremacy, American Exceptionalism and Cold War rhetoric that included slogans like “I’d rather be dead than red.” It would be a decade before I would come to the realization that I might be living IN a lie. I remember the disparaging remarks from my peers along with adults I knew and those I didn’t, and yes from myself. When Ali changed his name from Clay, adopted Islam, called out people about race and then nailed his coffin shut by refusing induction into the army many people were more than just a bit critical. After all, had our idol, Elvis Pressley, not seen his duty and done it? Here was this “mouthy colored boy” refusing to go fight the Reds in order to keep America safe. What a coward!
I did not have to make a decision whether to serve as I was never called up. I met an older man yesterday, my age or a little older. He was wearing a baseball cap proclaiming himself a “Viet Nam Vet.” As we stood in line to pay for what might have been the best fried shrimp I had ever eaten, I thanked him for his service and told him that “I had hidden behind my college deferment.” He was proud but still bitter about returning home and being portrayed as a “baby killer.” I don’t blame him for being bitter. As I think back, I should have paid for his meal while asking what he thought about Ali. It might have made me feel better instead of feeling that I somehow missed out on something, a coward in my own right.
I know exactly what would have happened if I had been called up. I would not have run off to Canada or gone to jail rather than serve. I would have done what thousands did, the expected no matter what my principles were. To have done otherwise would have let someone down, something I seem to have a phobia about despite doing it often. If anything it makes me respect Muhammad Ali even more. He did what was unexpected…for his principles instead of what others thought. His was a special type of bravery that didn’t involve following the “pied piper” of what is expected. Serving in Viet Nam or refusing to serve took a “special kind of guts” that I now realize were both based upon principle.
I don’t know when I began to view him differently, with the respect he deserved for doing what he thought was right. It’s not as if a light suddenly came on; it was more gradual as I became more “educated.” I knew I had found the light when I saw him lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 despite my sorrow over the body that was betraying him. His voice has given voice to other professional athletes and has somehow transcended generation, race and religion. I am truly sorry it has been silenced.
More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM