When I was growing up, it was impossible to imagine anyone cooler than Muhammad Ali. He had the perfect looks of a rock star, was hilariously funny, and was beautiful to watch in the ring. My friends and I used to pop in tapes of his fights and double over laughing watching his opponents flail about in search of that infuriatingly pretty face of his.
As is the case with many people who are reflecting on Ali’s legacy right now, Ali for me later in life also defined what it meant to stand on a principle. The story of how he defied the government and risked jail because he refused to kill on command was easy even for a young person to understand.
So I was saddened to hear of his death earlier this weekend. It’s unlikely we’ll ever see anyone like Ali again, and not just because he was a billions-to-one marvel of physical and mental gifts.
It’s also because his enemies learned from the mistake they made, and spent a generation making sure that the next of his ilk, in the unlikely event that he or she ever comes along, won’t become so powerful a dissenting influence.
Ali was famously a person who could make a stage out of anything. Even his weigh-ins turned into acts worthy of Carnegie Hall. But on April 28, 1967, the U.S. government handed him the biggest stage of his life.
At an armed forces examining station in Houston, he refused to step forward to a white line when his name was called. That one step would have signified his willingness to be drafted.
The awesome drama of that moment made Ali hated at the time, but also turned him into a martyr to history. The symbolism of a man who made his living fighting refusing to fight was extraordinarily powerful.
Ali furthermore brilliantly used the moment to link America’s bloody quagmire overseas to the domestic warfare that had broken out in places like Watts, Rochester, Newark, Cleveland, Detroit, and Division Street, Chicago.
“My conscience won’t let me shoot my brother or some darker people,” Ali said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger.”
Asking Ali to step forward that day in Houston was an epic strategic blunder. The last thing Lyndon Johnson or his successor Richard Nixon needed was to have Americans of any age, but particularly young people, making a connection between racism at home and wars of colonial domination abroad.
But by demanding that a man as prideful and magnetic as Ali submit to becoming a cheerleader for the bloodshed in Vietnam, that’s exactly what they did.