“In order to make someone cry, you must first make them laugh. When both of these things have happened because of you, someone has just told you that they love you.”
The 60’s were a tumultuous time. As weed-smoking hippies reveled in a Woodstock induced bliss, police dogs and firehoses ravaged unsuspecting blacks unable to find solace in a country plagued by division, and searing hatred. Fingers were pointed and voices were raised. Evil looks were not quite matched by eyes of kindness or understanding. The cruel and callous apathy of the elite; was met with unmitigated tension from people of color ready to explode, while silently demanding to be heard.
It started with a “Cold War”, which was no where near as cold as the one gripping familial divide in cities across America. As John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 1st and only Catholic president, tried to unravel a brewing storm between east and west, he fixed his gaze on larger issues.
On September 12, 1960, he issued an edict which would define him and an era, by declaring to a racist establishment and the Catholic Church itself, that he would not be taking any orders from the Pope.
It would cost him his life.
A week prior to this, a young and idealistic man of color became an Olympic Gold Medalist in Rome. He had no idea that he would become a cult of personality, and the closest thing to a rock star that the sports world has ever seen.
He would become an enduring symbol of black pride and the very voice of reason for men, women and children of all colors.
You are Cassius Clay, and you are about to morph into Muhammad Ali.
Equal parts icon and iconoclast, he shocked respectable opinion even as he seemed to embody the contradictory moods of his era. He became a member of the notorious Nation of Islam, drawing a huge line against the white man, while becoming his and everyone elses undisputed champion.
Dyslexic, and seemingly unqualified to go to the war in Vietnam- but never-the-less forced to; he told that same white man that he wasn’t going- even if it meant his life.
His disdain for convention was almost matched by his appreciation for the improbable, for he “rope-a-doped” this government long before he did the same thing to George Foreman in Zaire, as a decided underdog. This, well after he was robbed of more than 3 years of his absolute fighting prime, while defending himself against a war that became unbearably unpopular.
If Dr. King died because of his non-violent plea for integration, then Ali lived for an all out assault against it. That same defiance claimed the life of Malcolm X. But as was his custom in the ring, Ali simply leaned back from the bullets fired in his direction, never ducking anything or anyone.
It would force even his staunchest of critics who villified him with scorn, to adorn and embrace him with love out of sheer respect.
One-of-a-kind, he was as funny as he was cruel. When he displayed the ugly black doll and punched it back and forth while telling us that it was Joe Frazier’s conscious, it was as racist an act that one black man could display to another for the whole world to see.
But c’mon admit it- you laughed.
No man can profess to being infallible, and he certainly was not. But he was a man without compromise, who would stand in front of a train for principle. When he told us that “no Vietcong ever called me a nigger”, it is important to understand that he never called his fellow man one either.
Love is an oft used word, and is as vitally important to human beings, regardless of color, as water. There is arguably no man in history, who was more hated, that would go on to be loved- more than any of us ever will.
For everytime you see him, with the obvious effects of a disease that has robbed him of the movement and speech that would come to define him, you are reminded of what you wouldn’t steal to have an iota of his bravery, and of his will.
He’s moved many to shed tears reflecting on all of this. For he not only gave us all of his spirit- in the face of all aridity, but the permission to believe that impossible is indeed nothing.
He told us that he was “the greatest”, but he didn’t know he was being modest. He just might be the greatest man in Black American history.
What a man.