Saturday, June 4, 2016

When we were dicks

By Luke Reschuss
Obituary Editor

For all of the encomia heaped on the late Muhammad Ali today, you would think that his greatness had always been clear to the meanest intelligence.  As some of the death notices mentioned more or less in passing, Ali was not always regarded as the epitome of the human spirit.  In fact, when America was great, Ali was regarded by many as a fool, a traitor, a bigot, and just plain uppity. Many white people, that is.

The sportswriters, in those days 100% white men, couldn't stand, or understand, the man they preferred to call Cassius Clay long after he changed his name, as he had every right to do.  Dick Young of the New York Daily News, in the era of white greatness a press colossus that sold over 2,000,000 copies a day, constantly attacked Ali as a racist and a coward.

Even the genuinely talented Red Smith, by then a sports columnist for The New York Times, regarded Ali's principled opposition to serving in Vietnam thusly:
“Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war. Yet in this country they are free to speak their alleged minds, and so is he.”
Sorry spectacle indeed.

And the obloquy did not stop at the sports page.  Tom Wicker, the Times columnist who today is remembered if at all as a liberal lion had a few choice thoughts on Ali's refusal to be drafted to fight in an immoral and unnecessary war:
 [H]e is taking the ultimate position of civil disobedience; he is refusing to obey the law of the majority on grounds of his personal beliefs. . . . What would happen of all young men of draft age took the same position?
What, indeed, would happen if only, say, 100,000 young men flatly refused to serve in the armed forces, regardless of their legal position . . . .[I]f the Johnson Administration had to prosecute 100,000 Americans in order to maintain its authority, its real power to pursue the Vietnamese war or any other policy would be crippled if not destroyed.  (May 2, 1967)
That was the idea.

By contrast, young men who were able to escape military service by virtue of their father's fortune in Queens real estate and painful bunions were not a threat to the Government of the United States.  For all of Wicker's hyperventilating, based as it was on the incorrect assumption that Ali's position was legally unsupportable, in fact when Ali's case reached the Supreme Court, he was found eligible for deferment as a Muslim minister.

But it was this kind of thinking, endlessly amplified by old angry white men, that led the State of New York to strip Ali of his right to earn a living in his chosen profession.  As Robert Lipsyte (who did not join in the general hysteria) reported in the Times on May 10, 1967:
Edwin B. Dooley, the chairman of the State Athletic Commission . . .justif[ied] his decision to suspend Clay's boxing license “because he wouldn't answer the call of his country.” . . .
The commissioner . . . held that a license was a “privilege” and could be suspended or revoked . . . when a licensee had been judged “guilty of an act detrimental to the interests of boxing  . . . or to the public interest, convenience or necessity.” . . .
Then [Dooley] acknowledged that “we probably will have to reverse ourselves if Clay is not convicted.”
Mighty white of him.

But why harp on the obstacles that Muhammad Ali had to overcome to reach the pinnacle of his profession and his place in the pantheon of American heroes?  Instead let's celebrate his life and thank whoever you believe is the source of blessings that we no longer live in a country in which angry ignorant white men desperately try to hold on to their unearned power and privilege by spewing insults, bigotry, and hatred.  And that's why America is great.  Not great again.

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