OPINION – The golden anniversary of a golden age continues to glitter.
It was 1964 and the world was on the threshold of the incredible, dynamic 1960s, a tumultuous time of social and cultural change that was sparked by the fear of the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation; the lingering grief as a nation tried to come to grips with the assassination of a vibrant, young leader; and a generation that suddenly had the courage to ask, “why?” when shackled with the outdated strictures that had remained unchallenged for generations.
Dawn broke on 1964 and the mood began to change.
We celebrated, of course, the recent Golden Anniversary of the first appearance of The Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s television show. As the recent TV tribute suggested, it truly was “The Night That Changed America.”
Their music was more than the standard teenage fare of the day as the four young men from Liverpool expressed very adult opinions that often got them into trouble – from their stance against the Vietnam War to their assessment of religion. Their openness, their honesty, their willingness to step outside of the norm allowed a generation to do the same, knowing that somebody had its back.
But, there was somebody bigger, more powerful, more persuasive, and more pervasive than The Beatles.
At exactly the same time that The Beatles were weighing in, a young man from Louisville, Ky. was stepping brashly into the spotlight.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was stepping up his game. He was an AAU and Golden Gloves champ who went on to Olympic Gold in 1960 before entering the professional ranks and tearing it up, running a streak of 19 wins – 15 by knockout – with no losses against serious competition that included some of the top contenders to Sonny Liston’s heavyweight championship title.
Fifty years ago tonight, the wave of change that would mark the ‘60s, swelled when the brash young man named Clay seized the heavyweight championship from Liston with a sixth-round technical knockout in the at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
The next day Clay, who had entered the ring a 7-1 underdog in betting circles, announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam and that his new name would be Cassius X. Shortly after his announcement, NOI leader Elijah Muhammad, renamed him Muhammad Ali who said, in renouncing his birth name, “Cassius Clay is my slave name.”
It didn’t settle well with the American public, which already had a fairly negative impression of the young Ali who they said was, “too loud,” “too brash,” “to ‘uppity,’” for their tastes.
At that point, the civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was in full throttle, trying to end segregation, voting rights abuses, and the other vile effects of centuries of racism and inequality. Although coming at it from different perspectives, the two men worked tirelessly to end the oppression and violence against Black America and the Jim Crow laws instituted from 1876 until 1965, primarily in the American South, or “Dixie” as it has often been referred to, that segregated schools, restaurants, public transportation, restrooms, and drinking fountains.
At the time when Ali won the heavyweight crown, the United States was still a largely segregated nation with separate schools, hotels, neighborhoods, and facilities for people of color. There were poll taxes that prevented many from voting. Sammy Davis Jr. and B.B. King may have played the big showrooms in Las Vegas during this time, but they slept in blacks-only hotels across town when the evening’s gig was over.
Ali took up the voice of the civil rights movement and became an often-derided spokesman for the cause. Of course, so was Dr. King, Malcolm X, and even President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who for all of his political treachery, was the force behind passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson, in fact, did not believe the Act went far enough; during a commencement address at Howard University in 1965, he said:
It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result. To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.
Ali wasn’t simply a headline seeker, he was actively involved in his community, giving back, offering support and a reference point for courage.
In his essay, “The Importance of Muhammad Ali,” written for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Thomas Hauser quotes an old L.A. acquaintance of mine, Bryant Gumbel, who said “One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”
Ali showed his courage when, on April 28, 1967, he refused induction into the U.S. Army on grounds of his being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
“I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars,” he said at the time. “But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
It did cost Ali millions of dollars, although he did not go to jail. And, it cost him nearly four years of his career – four years when he was at his prime.
It would have crippled a lesser man, but, of course, a lesser man would not have stood up to an establishment that disdained his people, withheld basic human rights from his people, and, stole the dignity of his people.
Ali stood tall in the face of the criticism, bigotry, and hatred heaped upon him and inspired a generation to be true unto itself, seek justice and equality, and, most importantly, to be brave.
Over the years Ali has earned a number of nicknames. He was called “The Louisville Lip,” “The Greatest,” and a few other names not suitable for print.
But to me, he’ll always remain, simply, “The Champ.”
And, not because of his success in the boxing ring.
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Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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