Talking Honestly About Ali Can Honor His Racial Legacy

Co-authored by Dr. Lora-ellen McKinney

While we are grieving Muhammad Ali's death, we should reflect back on his undoubtedly positive role in bridging racial divides. But we also should consider the potential positive impact on our nation if we could start talking more honestly about how America went from having groups that perceived him very differently to one in which there was a commonly shared love for him.

If you are over 50, you know from direct experience that Ali was not always hailed as a hero. Yes, Ali has been considered a beloved national treasure since he appeared at the opening Atlanta Olympic ceremonies in 1996. One might argue public opinion had shifted predominately in his favor even by 1978, when he lost and regained the heavyweight title belt for the third time. But it would be a mistake to forget that many considered him scary when he became a Muslim in 1964, and that when he refused the draft in 1967, he was widely disparaged. One newspaper called him a "black Benedict Arnold." Thus, in less than two decades, Ali went from being reviled to being revered.

The sea change in attitudes about Ali would not have been possible without his extraordinary prowess in the ring. But there was more than athletic talent at work in the dramatic transformation of the nation's perceptions of him. Part of what affected feelings toward Ali were shifting racial attitudes generally; undoubtedly, he both had an impact on and was affected by these changes. Talking honestly about the personal experiences that shaped and reflected our views of Ali might help us understand how these broader changes happened.

I was an eight-year old black boy when I became immersed in the pre-fight hype around the 1970 Fight of the Century with Joe Frazier. I remember trying to stay up late listening to the round-by-round summary on the radio; my dad and I both rooted for Ali. Much of that inclination was tribal in nature; we often root for the person who, broadly speaking, we define as "like us." (Confession: many black folks' choice of who to root for today are still affected by such feelings).

There was an element larger than tribalism too. Ali was black folks' champion, because many of us liked the way he was not constrained by what white folks thought of him. Stylish and brash, The Champ added poetry to our cultural tradition of trash talk. Importantly, he was willing to tell white folks in no uncertain terms how abusive the racial caste system was.

Ali helped many of us feel less afraid of white people, and made us more ready to challenge them when necessary. I explicitly thought about Muhammad Ali fighting "The Man" as I summoned up the courage to knock down a redheaded kid who was bullying me in the fifth grade. Generally, black folk don't like to admit to each other (or to white people) that we can find white folks terrifying - especially when they are in power or when they seem united as a group. I know that I was not alone in being bolstered by Ali - notables like Julian Bond and Bryant Gumbel have said similar things about how Ali's brave defiance of white people strengthened them.

While huge portions of black folks felt empowered by him, significant portions also felt differently. Some found his braggadocios rhyming over the top, or even considered him to be an embarrassment to our race. Others found him too rebellious and overly aggressive in his way of challenging of the white power structure.

An honest reckoning of black folks' journey from 1960's ambivalence to 1980's reverence for Ali may have to travel through self-doubt, resentments, or perhaps racial shame. Though I have never been a white person, I am confident that an honest conversation about many white folks' trajectory of perceptions about Ali and race through this period will visit some emotions that are even harder to admit. To be fair, some of those feelings were very similar to the affinity-based racial tribalism that my dad and I felt.

But if white folks are completely honest (like this writer), they will own up to fact that Ali's fights often raised feelings that were specifically racial and not merely tribal. Although they usually tried to hide it, there were many white folks who wanted the black guy to lose to help restore the racial order. So lots of the anti-Ali feelings were really transposed anti-black feelings. To illustrate a reporter once said to Ali, "They want your ass whipped in public, knocked down, ripped, stomped, clubbed, pulverized, and not just by anybody, but by a real Great White Hope."

By the mid-70's, explicit racism was becoming more socially taboo, so expressions of anti-black feelings were increasingly less direct. But these feelings existed, often semi-consciously. Negative racial feelings about Ali (and other athletes) morphed into assessments of lessor talent, vague dislikes, and other ways. Black folks largely sensed these unconscious or unstated antipathies were at work, and would talk about with each other. The good news is that over time, many white folks came around; by the 1980s, Ali was widely beloved by white people too. I watched the Atlanta Olympics opening ceremony in a racially mixed group, and we all cried when Ali fought against his Parkinsonian shakes to light the torch.

Honestly talking about how and why the attitudes of white folks, black folks and everyone else migrated over Ali's career would be useful in conversations both within and across racial groups. Perhaps we should think about the "national race conversation" as not something we watch in the media, but rather something more participatory. Maybe we need to ask each other questions about our personal experiences, like: What do you remember (or were told) about Ali and how he was regarded by people like you and different from you? How did people think about his religious conversion? Was his willingness to be jailed important to the shifting opinion about Ali? When did perceptions about Ali change among different groups, and why? Did his years of illness-induced silence matter?

No matter where we started, almost everyone ended up loving this great athlete and humanitarian. Some folks even say that Ali "transcended race," a comment that I experience as simultaneously hopeful and irritating. Nevertheless, knowing that we all ended up in the same place about The Champ may make it easier for us to admit feelings about him and about each other early days were part of a difficult-to-talk-about history. Honest dialogue about our evolution about Ali may propel us to more honest, grace-filled, and courageous conversations about the racial evolution we are still going through.