My first memory of Muhammad Ali is from February 1964 in Miami's funky Fifth Street gym, just after the Beatles had departed from a memorable photo shoot.
Ali was still in the ring shouting his pre-rap couplet, "Save your money and don't bet on Sonny!" "Sonny" was Sonny Liston, the surly champion and 7-1 betting favorite, whom I'd heard the day before dismiss his challenger as a "virgin" and a "faggot." Ali had just turned 22.
I am old enough to remember when Ali was underestimated, reviled and exiled, called a coward and a traitor, and referred to as "Clay" by all the best papers, long after he had changed his name, when those same papers had no difficulty calling Robert Zimmerman "Bob Dylan."
When Ali shocked the world and vanquished the invincible monster Sonny Liston, the arena was half empty, because so few fans gave him a chance to survive the first round, much less prevail. Only Ali's front-row faction of American black royalty had faith in him that night--Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But today Ali is universally beloved as he turns 60 (January 17), basks in the glow of Michael Mann's superb new movie about his life and sees rapper Will Smith impersonate him to perfection, down to the shoulder dip in the ring and the lower register of his voice in repose.
The once-reviled Cassius Clay has come to be perceived as America's Buddha, our Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony. Ali at 60 is the most famous face on the planet, and probably the most loved person, if a democratic election were held that included Africa, the Islamic world, America and Vietnam.
His trembling hands and muted speech from Parkinson's disease only make him seem more revered, vulnerable and heroic; he is not afraid to display his impairment to the world. He has a serenity that allows him not to hide.
What happened is that America has changed more than Ali since the 1960s.
Like all mortals, Muhammad Ali has made his mistakes and said his share of stupid things, to which I will return. He did have a mean streak of venom he used against his best black opponents. And he did betray and abandon his teacher, Malcolm X, out of blind loyalty to the cult racketeer Elijah Muhammad.
Ali is what he is today, I think, primarily because of his draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War. This is what made him bigger than sports, and allowed him to endure so long after his career ended and to become an international icon.
This is what made him come to personify principle and sacrifice for all times. He gave up his championship, surrendered his prime athletic years between 26 and 29, and lost millions of dollars in earnings. He sacrificed all this--without being given any due process--to become a conscientious objector to an unjust war that was still popular when he took his formal stand in April 1967. He had moral courage equal to his physical courage.
The transcendent meaning of what Ali did was memorialized by literature professor and boxing scholar Gerald Early, in his essay "Tales of the Wonderboy." Recalling his reaction as a young boy to Ali's simple act of defiance, Early writes:
When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. He was the grand knight, after all, the dragon slayer. And I felt myself, little inner-city boy that I was, his apprentice to the grand imagination, the grand daring. The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him, and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities.
Michael Mann, who directed the film Ali, told me, "The draft resistance was it for Nelson Mandela. When the cast had dinner with Mandela, while we were filming in Mozambique, Mandela told us that what Ali was willing to lose in order to oppose the war was the defining thing about him."
Jack Johnson was a sophisticated, apolitical hedonist. Joe Louis was a modest patriot. Michael Jordan will not do anything controversial. Jackie Robinson became a Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon against Jack Kennedy in 1960.
Muhammad Ali is the most socially significant athlete in American history. He invented himself out of the cultural and political currents of the early 1960s--black pride, rock and roll, popular entertainment, anti-authority rebellion, generational self-expression and wrestling.
I once asked him where he got his early arrogant, bombastic performance art. He replied, "Little Richard, Gorgeous George and Liberace. George told me I could fill arenas by selling tickets to fans who would pay to see someone shut my big mouth."
When Ali upset Liston and won the heavyweight championship, he ignited a transformation in the consciousness of a generation. He consolidated a radical shift in black consciousness in America and, later, in the world. And he changed the popular culture of media and celebrity with the force of his personality. No football game ever did all that.
On that sea-changing night in Miami, the most mythic prize in sports passed from the Mafia, which owned Liston and used him as a strikebreaker, to this liberated, uninhibited black man, who kept saying, "I don't have to be what you want me to be."
The new champ announced the next morning that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, briefly taking the name Cassius X, and then Muhammad Ali. This was a lot for America to digest in twenty-four hours.
Ali's actual relationship to the Nation of Islam seems mysterious to this day. He never obeyed all its practices. He was promiscuous with women. He kept the white Angelo Dundee as his trainer, Ferdie Pacheco as his doctor and Bundini Brown as his camp cheerleader, even though Bundini was a black Jew who chased white women. Ali never displayed any hostility toward white people. He dumped Don King as his promoter in 1976 for Bob Arum, a Jew from Brooklyn. It is possible that his religious conversion was initially more of a social awakening, his way of asserting black pride and solidarity.
Ali quietly quit the Nation of Islam in 1975, to become a follower of a more inclusive Islamic faith, the brand that Malcolm X embraced in the last nine months of his life, after his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ali once confided to me that he didn't become "a devout, true believer in Allah" until the mid-1980s, "when my career was over, and miniskirts went out of style."
The Greatest was the first rock-and-roll heavyweight champion. His rebellious heroes growing up were Sam Cooke (who was in the chaotic ring with him after he beat Liston in Miami), Lloyd Price, James Brown, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino and the exhibitionistic, uninhibited Little Richard. Ali moved to the backbeat with invincible confidence and vanity.
There are two distinctive assets underlying Ali's protean originality.
One is very simple--he loves people in a gargantuan, Babe Ruth kind of way that was never bogus. He likes to be around people, in crowds, signing autographs for free, joking with kids, performing his corny magic tricks. Ali always had a color-blind enthusiasm for humankind, even when he appeared to be in his most fervent Nation of Islam phase.
In Muhammad Ali, the definitive oral-history biography by Thomas Hauser, there is a revealing quotation from the champ, who says,
All my life I admired Elvis Presley. When I was in Las Vegas, I heard him sing, and it was a thrill to meet him.... But I felt sorry for Elvis, because he didn't enjoy life the way he should. He stayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. He said he couldn't, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn't understand. No one wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly, and tell him how much they loved him.
Ali proves the wisdom of the old Beatles message--the more love you give, the more love you receive.
Ali's second secret asset--and this is just my intuition--is that he possesses an almost mystical capacity to absorb energy and inspiration from the external world, and then filter it through his politicized rock-and-roll imagination. This helped make him special as both a fighter and a figure in history.
Ali drew strength and extra reserves of resolve from being black, from Allah, from being beautiful, from being a rebel and an outsider, from being underestimated, from Africa, from being booed by bigots, from being cheered by white hippies for opposing the Vietnam War, from having Lloyd Price and James Brown with him in Africa when he beat George Foreman to regain his crown on the soil of his ancestors.
Ali believed that if he could beat Liston or Foreman or Frazier, that would inspire a junkie to get off drugs, a child to survive a terminal illness, a welfare recipient to get a job, a drunk to go to rehab. He believed his life could change other lives, that his fate was linked to the fate of the masses, that if he won a fight, that could motivate a derelict to rise out of the gutter.
He believed he was on a divine mission, and that Allah would not allow him to lose a mere athletic competition. Malcolm X told him before the Liston fight that Muslims felt no fear, and Ali lived this way.
In his most desperate moments, when he was blinded by a foreign substance from Liston's "juiced" gloves, or exhausted against Frazier in Manila and feeling "next to death," Ali was able to draw confidence, desire and serenity from the external world beyond the ring and the gym.
He put this mystical faith into words--once on film, for Leon Gast's camera at his Deer Lake training camp, just before he left to meet the unbeaten Foreman in Africa, as the heavy underdog at 32. His soliloquy did not make it into the wonderful documentary, When We Were Kings, that Gast and Taylor Hackford put together. But it is in the outtakes. Sitting on the steps of his cabin, Ali speaks directly into the camera, with an honest self-exposure: "I am fighting for God and my people. I am not fighting for fame or money. I'm fighting for me. I'm fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, black people who are the wineheads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah."
Then he added wistfully, "I wish Lumumba was here to see me. I want to win so I can lead my people."
Ali's rebirth has inevitably generated its own backlash, most notably Mark Kram's half-excellent book Ghosts of Manila, published last June. The book gives Joe Frazier all the respect and poetry he is due. But it goes on to claim that Ali was just a dupe of the Nation of Islam in his draft resistance.
Kram argues that Ali didn't know what he was doing when he refused induction, that he was being manipulated, and may have feared being assassinated by the Nation. Kram compares Ali to the empty simpleton Chauncy Gardner from the Jerzy Kosinski novel Being There, whose vague clichés were mistaken for deep insights.
"Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived," Kram writes of Ali.
This is a caricature of a complicated history. The Muslims wanted Ali to keep fighting so they could continue to make money off him; Herbert Muhammad, the Messenger Elijah Muhammad's son, was his manager, who took a third of all his ring earnings and a third of all his commercial-endorsement contracts. At the same time, the Messenger was--in theory--opposed to boxing as an enterprise.
When I asked Ali about this in 1991, he said, "If anybody used anybody, I used the Nation. They didn't make me do anything I didn't want to do."
What is not generally known (or remembered) is that the Muslims repudiated and banished Ali during his exile from boxing, when he was at his lowest ebb of earning power and legitimacy. On April 4, 1969, the Messenger published a statement in the Muslim newspaper that said:
We tell the world we're not with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali is out of the circle of the brotherhood of the followers of Islam...for one year. Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay.
The way the Nation exploited Ali is well told both in the film Ali and in one of the most sensitive books about Ali--Redemption Song, by Mike Marqusee (Verso).
The small reason the Messenger stripped Ali of his holy name was explained by the late Philadelphia Muslim minister Jeremiah Shabazz in Hauser's oral biography. Jeremiah was a large and much-feared figure in the Nation. He started Ali's conversion to Islam before Ali met Malcolm, he was a confidant of Elijah Muhammad and he maintained close ties to Ali. He told Hauser:
In early 1969, Ali was questioned on a television program about whether or not he'd go back to boxing. And Ali said something to the effect of, Yeah, I'd go back if the money was right. And that comment angered the Messenger, because to him, it was like Ali was saying he'd give up his religion for the white man's money. The Messenger sent for Ali, and I went with him to Chicago. I was there when the Messenger told Ali he was taking his name back and suspending him from the faith, that he didn't want to be involved with anyone so weak as to go crawling on hands and knees to the white man for a little money.
The Nation of Islam had no control over Ali after this brutal excommunication.
The rebuttal to Kram's depiction of Ali as a manipulated Muslim dupe is even further complicated. Ali's reaction to being reclassified as 1-A and thus eligible for the draft went through a process. It began on that first day of reclassification (February 17, 1966), and it evolved over the next few months, as his emotions changed and as the tactics of his lawyers changed.
Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times was present on that first day, and his observations are quoted at length in Redemption Song. Lipsyte heard Ali whine at first about how he could be drafted out of all the thousands of eligible kids in Louisville. Ali kept asking, "Why me?"
Lipsyte felt that in those first hours, as media calls poured in, Ali's attitude was "self-centered." Also, Ali did not seem to know where Vietnam was on the map.
But at the same time, also on the first hectic day, Ali was humming to himself Dylan's antiwar anthem "Blowin' in the Wind." And on this first day Ali did say to a reporter perhaps his most famous line--"I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."
In that moment Ali began to change the world more than the world was changing him. This quote resonated and took on a life of its own.
Lipsyte has been a supporter of Ali in general, but is critical of his first, peevish response to being made eligible for the draft. He remembers Ali's anger over being reclassified for the draft on the basis of the recalibration of the intelligence-test standards, so that Ali's result was now counted a pass without his being retested. (Tom Hauser thinks Ali flunked the test legitimately because of his poor math skills.)
On that first day, Lipsyte heard Ali whine that his tax payments were paying for "three jet bombers and lots of bullets."
But within a few months Ali's selfish emotions subsided, and he grew into a critic of the war. He read, watched television and saw gory photos of the carnage in the newsmagazines.
The FBI certainly did not regard Ali as a brainless dupe. They began surveillance of him in early 1964, after he was observed with Malcolm X. An FBI memo dated July 25, 1967, recommended intensified surveillance of "Clay." Five of his phone calls were illegally recorded by the FBI, including one with Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called "brother."
By the end of 1966, Ali's opposition tothe war was more advanced than that of most senators. He told the great photographer Gordon Parks, "How can I kill somebody when I pray five times a day for peace?"
This is not to suggest that Ali had the complex global sophistication of I.F. Stone or Norman Mailer, or the towering moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. He was still a fighter, not an intellectual or a foreign policy expert. But he was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, and whatever he said or did got on television and into millions of homes with draft-age children. The combination of principle and position made him dangerous.
Ali became a willing symbol, catalyst and martyr to the antiwar movement. He may have started out selfish and irritable, but he evolved into a serious man, a fearless American dissident who made the racist J. Edgar Hoover anxious and angry.
At first, Ali's lawyers argued that his Army induction would be an "undue financial hardship" on his family. But a month later they began to invoke his religion as alternative grounds for refusing to fight in the war.
Another historical detail that is often neglected is that the original hearing officer for his Louisville draft board (retired Judge Lawrence Grauman) actually ruled in favor of Ali's conscientious objector claim. But Grauman was overruled by the all-white draft board.
Ali's draft refusal seemed to be intuitive and authentic. Whether or not he was capable of shooting anybody, he certainly wouldn't kill any Vietnamese on behalf of a government that, in 1966, oppressed black people in his own country and in his own discriminatory hometown of Louisville. His quarrel was with his own government, which was the implication of his Vietcong remark.
Ali's feelings about the war were strong enough, and clear enough, for him to speak at an antiwar rally in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967, with Dr. Benjamin Spock. Ali told the crowd of about 20,000:
"Anything designed for peace and to stop the killing, I'm for 100 percent. I'm not a leader. I'm not here to advise you. But I encourage you to express yourself."
Ali's stand against killing wasn't vindicated until the Supreme Court threw out his conviction and five-year sentence on June 28, 1971, in an 8-0 ruling. The High Court agreed that his draft resistance was rooted in his religious faith.
This exoneration came three months after Ali lost to Joe Frazier. Years later he acknowledged to me, "I wasn't ready for Joe after only two tune-ups. But I felt I had to take the fight when I did because I needed the money. I assumed I was going into prison in a few months, and had no choice on the timing of the fight."
(The only major historical inaccuracy I noticed in the film Ali is that the Supreme Court exoneration is portrayed as coming before the loss to Frazier.)
Ali's first fight after his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing was in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry in 1970, because the local politics were favorable to Ali. There was no boxing commission in Georgia. And a local black state senator named Leroy Johnson cut himself in for a piece of the promotion. Johnson controlled enough black votes to be able to force the mayor, Sam Massell, to let Ali fight in his jurisdiction. An injustice was cured, and State Senator Leroy Johnson made a nice piece of change.
Ali had his blemishes, and committed his blunders, as a young man swept up in the wildest conflicts and largest personalities of the 1960s.
When he sided with the cranky, despotic Elijah Muhammad against Malcolm X, it left Malcolm naked to his enemies for the kill. If Ali, as the new heavyweight champion, had remained loyal to his mentor, and continued to lend his public support to Malcolm, history might have gone in a different direction. Malcolm might not have lost his power base. Louis Farrakhan might not have taken his place.
Ali shows the champion sobbing in remorse when he learns that Malcolm has been murdered (by Nation of Islam assassins), as Al Green sings Sam Cooke's soul masterpiece, "A Change Is Gonna Come," on the rising soundtrack.
The way Ali deployed his verbal skills to dehumanize Joe Frazier was indefensible. He used his wit and vocabulary to redefine "black authenticity," to cast his rivals as less black than himself, to rob them of their true identity. (Interestingly, he was never cruel to white opponents like Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo. He did not try to mess with their minds.)
He called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla" and the "white man's champion." Frazier experienced these racial insults as a personal betrayal, since he had befriended Ali during his years away from the ring, offered to lend him money and campaigned to get Ali his license back, so they could fight and make money together.
The taunting positioned Ali favorably among intellectuals--black and white--but it was essentially the tactic of an artful politician, campaigning for votes. Black laborers and cops tended to favor Frazier. It was Frazier who had the more impoverished origins, the darker skin color, the more African features, the black trainer and the black doctor. Frazier was pure blue-collar work ethic, a proud warrior from the slums and fields who was subservient to nobody.
In an interview in the early 1990s, Frazier told me: "I had to swallow a lot of razor blades when the butterfly ran his mouth. He grew up nice in the suburbs and says he learned to box when somebody stole his bicycle. I didn't have no bicycle! When I was 12 years old my family was sharecroppers in South Carolina. One day the bossman told me the mule had just died, and I had to replace the mule in the fields. I'm a lot blacker than the butterfly."
"I don't have to be what you want me to be" endures as Muhammad Ali's credo of self-creation, social defiance and historical significance.
The moral of his imperfect life remains: redemption through suffering, emancipation through courage, vindication through adherence to principle. Whenever he got knocked down, he got up, which is the best any of us can do.
Yet there is also the inescapable element of Greek tragedy to Ali's physical decline over the past twenty years. The same gift the gods gave him has also partially destroyed him. He was most renowned for his speed and speech, and now both those gifts are disfigured beyond recognition. He could survive astonishing punishment and still win, but this bravery eventually betrayed his body.
But what Muhammad Ali accomplished in his youth under two different names, both in the limited boxing arena and in the unlimited world arena of values and consciousness, changed history forever--and for the better.
What would the government have to do to convince you to get married when you otherwise wouldn't? More than pay you $80 a month, I'll bet, the amount Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed "Bridefare" pilot program offered unwed teen welfare mothers beginning in the early nineties, which is perhaps why then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Health and Human Services Secretary, was uninterested in having it properly evaluated and why you don't hear much about Bridefare today. OK, how about $100 a month? That's what West Virginia is currently offering to add to a couple's welfare benefits if they wed. But even though the state has simultaneously cut by 25 percent the checks of recipients living with adults to whom they are not married (including, in some cases, their own grown children, if you can believe that!), results have been modest: Only around 1,600 couples have applied for the bonus and presumably some of these would have married anyway. With the state's welfare budget expected to show a $90 million shortfall by 2003, the marriage bonus is likely to be quietly abolished.
Although welfare reform was sold to the public as promoting work, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of l996 actually opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." According to Charles Murray, Robert Rector and other right-wing ideologues, welfare enabled poor women to rely on the state instead of husbands; forcing them off the dole and into the rigors of low-wage employment would push them into marriage, restore "the family" and lift children out of poverty. That was always a silly idea. For one thing, as any single woman could have told them, it wrongly assumed that whether a woman married was only up to her; for another, it has been well documented that the men available to poor women are also poor and often (like the women) have other problems as well: In one study, 30 percent of poor single fathers were unemployed in the week before the survey and almost 40 percent had been incarcerated; drugs, drink, violence, poor health and bad attitudes were not uncommon. Would Murray want his daughter to marry a guy with even one of those strikes against him? Not surprisingly, there has been no upsurge of marriage among former welfare recipients since 1996. Of all births, the proportion that are to unwed mothers has stayed roughly where it was, at 33 percent.
Since the stick of work and the carrot of cash have both proved ineffective in herding women to the altar, family values conservatives are calling for more lectures. Marriage promotion will be a hot item when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization later this year. At the federal level conservatives are calling for 10 percent of all TANF money to be set aside for promoting marriage; Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma have already raided TANF to fund such ventures as a "healthy marriage" handbook for couples seeking a marriage license. And it's not just Republicans: Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, are also interested in funding "family formation." In place of cash bonuses to individuals, which at least put money in the pockets of poor people, look for massive funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses (and never you mind that pesky separation of church and state), for fatherhood intervention programs, classes to instruct poor single moms in the benefits of marriage (as if they didn't know!), for self-help groups like Marriage Savers, abstinence education for kids and grownups alike and, of course, ingenious pilot projects by the dozen. There's even been a proposal to endow pro-marriage professorships at state universities--and don't forget millions of dollars for evaluation, follow-up, filing and forgetting.
There's nothing wrong with programs that aim to raise people's marital IQ--I love that journalistic evergreen about the engaged couple who take a quiz in order to qualify for a church wedding and call it off when they discover he wants seven kids and she wants to live in a tree. But remember when it was conservatives who argued against social engineering and micromanaging people's private lives and "throwing money at the problem"?
Domestic violence experts have warned that poor women may find themselves pushed into marrying their abusers and staying with them--in a disturbing bit of Senate testimony, Mike McManus of Marriage Savers said domestic violence could usually be overcome with faith-based help. Is that the message women in danger should be getting? But there are even larger issues: Marriage is a deeply personal, intimate matter, involving our most private, barely articulated selves. Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor? Even as a meal ticket wedlock is no panacea--that marriage is a cure for poverty is only true if you marry someone who isn't poor, who will share his income with you and your children, who won't divorce you later and leave you worse off than ever. The relation between poverty and marriage is virtually the opposite of what pro-marriage ideologues claim: It isn't that getting married gives feckless poor people middle-class values and stability, it's that stable middle-class people are the ones who can "afford" to be married. However marriage functioned a half-century ago, today it is a class marker. Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women--and poor men--as human beings in their own right: with education, training for high-paying jobs, housing, mental health services, really good childcare for their kids. Every TANF dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people.
The very fact that welfare reformers are reduced to bribing, cajoling and guilt-tripping people into marriage should tell us something. Or have they just not hit on the right incentive? As a divorced single mother, I've given some thought to what it would take for me to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again. Here's my offer: If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready.
If you believe President Bush, Kenneth Lay--one of his top financial backers and his "good friend"--was merely an equal-opportunity corrupter of our political system, buying off Democrats and Rep
The new education law is a victory for Bush--and for his corporate allies.
Sure, he's a cartoon character, but it still takes courage to speak out.
Drug companies influence research; they also affect what gets published.
"Former Yankee virtues, common sense, scepticism if not suspicion of authority, a belief in the mastery of the future, have been driven underground.
Read Senator Joe Lieberman's letter to ACTA.
Read comments from other new members of Tattletales for an Open Society.
Read Eric Scigliano's Naming-and un-naming-Names.
On August 21 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a struggling oil-refinery town on the Texas border, Wilbert Rideau walked to the center of the modern courtroom, hobbled by shackles. The man Life magazine called "the most rehabilitated man in America" lifted up his furrowed brow and looked at the judge. And stillness came over the crowd of mostly elderly blacks, as Rideau pleaded not guilty to a murder committed forty years ago.
Interest in the case lies not in Rideau's innocence or guilt. On numerous occasions he has accepted responsibility for murdering a woman after robbing a bank in 1961. Rideau, 59, received the death penalty, but by an accident of history, lived to become a famous journalist. As editor of a prison magazine called The Angolite, he has won almost every journalistic award and become a national expert on prison life; he's been "Person of the Week" on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and a pundit on Nightline--all from behind prison bars in Angola, Louisiana. In 1994 Rideau's lawyers, in a last-ditch effort to free him, filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. In December 2000 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans found that the original prosecutor of the case had excluded blacks from the grand jury in blatant violation of the Constitution, and ruled that the state must retry Rideau or release him.
This year Rideau is set to stand trial in the same Louisiana town where he was first convicted forty years ago. Many thought that Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish would look the other way rather than reprosecute an age-old case with lost evidence and a manifestly rehabilitated defendant. Rideau's lawyers have said he would settle by pleading guilty to manslaughter and walk away with more time served than all but four convicted murderers in Louisiana history. But the state won't offer any deal.
The reason can be found in Lake Charles, a town where redemption may not be possible when a black man kills a white woman. Powerful people in the parish have blocked Rideau's release, whereas other inmates sentenced for similar crimes have received parole. During Rideau's time in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, nearly 700 convicted murderers have been freed. Four pardon boards have recommended Rideau for release--but two governors have denied clemency. "Why Not Wilbert Rideau?" was the title of a 20/20 segment exploring why he has not been able to get parole. "I think he is a con artist," said District Attorney Rick Bryant. "He's a master manipulator of the media and people who have supported him."
The vehemence stems in part from the fact that Rideau is a prosecutor's nightmare. This is the fourth time the parish has tried him. Each time Rideau is convicted, he appeals and exposes shameful structural flaws in how the justice system here really works. And he's doing it again. This past November 29 the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the parish's process for selecting judges in capital cases, which the court faulted for allowing judge-picking, a practice used by prosecutors to obtain judges favorable to the state. The prosecution had filed its new case against Rideau when the only ball left in the bingolike hopper was the one for Michael Canaday, a white judge who had never before tried a felony. After watching Judge Canaday in court, Marjorie Ross, 68, a retired department store salesperson, said, "I look back forty years ago and things haven't changed. It's because of this." She pointed to her dark-skinned face.
But the new judge, selected "at random" with all seven balls in the hopper, happens to be one Wilford Carter, who is black and was elected from a black district with many voters fixated on this case. It's a boon that has become Rideau's signature--the grace of luck appears just when it seems to have run out. "The fact that I excelled beyond anybody's wildest expectations not only vindicated official decisions but increased the hostility of my enemies," Rideau said in a series of telephone interviews. "Everything I became, everything I have achieved, has been in spite of this unholy force from Lake Charles dedicated to destroying me and denying me the ability to be anything more than the criminal they wanted me to be."
His crime has been hard for the town to forget. According to the original prosecutor, Frank Salter, on February 16, 1961, Wilbert Rideau, then 19, knocked on the door of the Gulf National Bank at closing time. Bank manager Jay Hickman unlocked the door. He knew Rideau as the errand runner at Halperin's, the sewing shop next door, who would fetch sodas for bank employees, until the relationship became too friendly for the whites. "We stopped [asking him for sodas] because he started talking," said victim Dora McCain in her trial testimony, "calling us by our first names. So we just--we just got a refrigerator for the bank." That day, Rideau produced a gun and demanded that Hickman empty the money drawer. Rideau put $14,000 in a gray suitcase (leaving $30,000 on the floor and in coffers) and forced Hickman and two women bank tellers into a car. They drove to a country road in a wooded area, where Rideau lined up his three hostages and began firing. One bullet landed in Jay Hickman's arm. Hickman rolled off into a bayou out of sight. The two women fell to the ground with gunshot wounds. Julia Ferguson, 49, cried out, "Think of my poor old daddy," who lived with her. "Don't worry, it will be quick and cool," Rideau allegedly said before slitting her throat and stabbing her in the heart. Ferguson died at the scene. Rideau approached the other teller, Dora McCain, a pretty twentysomething with a well-known family, who lay face down. He kicked her in the side three times to see if she was dead. When she didn't cry out, Rideau took the car and left. Two state troopers stopped Rideau in his car as he was leaving town. They found the suitcase with the money in the back seat. (Rideau's counsel declined to comment on the facts before trial.)
That year, the first of three all-white, all-male juries convicted Rideau and sentenced him to death. Rideau appealed on grounds that a TV station, KPLC-TV, had secretly filmed the sheriff posing questions to Rideau, who had no access to a lawyer, and aired his mumbled answers as a confession. The US Supreme Court slammed the parish's "kangaroo court proceedings" and found that the broadcast had unfairly prejudiced the jury pool. The Court reversed the conviction and said Rideau could not be tried anywhere within the reach of KPLC. In 1964 at a second trial, in Baton Rouge, the jury deliberated for fifteen minutes before deciding to give him the electric chair. Rideau appealed again, and a federal court overturned his conviction on grounds that the state court had rejected jurors with doubts about the death penalty, in effect stacking the jury with death penalty proponents--a violation of due process. In 1970 at a third trial, in Baton Rouge, the jury took eight minutes to give Rideau the death penalty. His appeals were unsuccessful, and he returned to death row--just in time to benefit from Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 Supreme Court decision that temporarily found the death penalty unconstitutional. As a result, every death-row inmate in America, including Rideau, had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Rideau won't comment on the crime because he is facing a new trial. But he agreed to talk about the person he was at the time and how he has changed. Though he usually speaks quickly, in perfect sentences, his cadence is deliberate in describing the man he was when he entered prison. "I wouldn't recognize him today," he said. "I was typical in a lot of ways. I was another dumb black, immature, angry. Not even aware that there is a world bigger than me." He says he had a fairly normal childhood, moving to Lake Charles when he was 6. "My home life wasn't the best," Rideau says. "But that doesn't say much because a lot of people's family lives weren't." His problems, he says, began during adolescence. "People used to pass by and they would throw Coke bottles and spit and holler at you," he says. "You could be walking by with your girl and they would call at you talking about you--'Hey nigger, blah blah blah, whatever.'" Rideau knew it wasn't directed at him alone. But he took it as "the end of the world." "I saw whites as enemies responsible for everything wrong with my world. Whites created this bizarre segregated world where racism ruled," he says. In his segregated school, he dismissed the hand-me-down books from white schools, which held forth ideas of "rights" and "how life was so wonderful." Though he had a straight-A average, he quit school in the eighth grade because he saw no use for an education. "I wanted to be a spaceman like Flash Gordon," he says. At 13, he began a series of low-paying jobs and spent most of his time in pool halls and gin joints. "I didn't even know the name of the governor of the state," he said. "I was totally out of it."
Eventually, he became an errand runner in the fabric shop, his last job before being sent to Angola. In prison, he noticed the strange ethics of prison life, starting with white guards who smuggled him novels and science texts. "I read a library on death row," he says. And in a Baton Rouge jail, where he stayed for part of his appeals, Rideau lived in the segregated white section as punishment for leading a "strike" in protest against prison conditions--flooding the commodes and burning mattresses. When Rideau led white prisoners in a strike as well, the prison put him in solitary confinement. And to Rideau's shock, whites began secretly sending him food and kind words. "Whites started taking care of me," he said.
Within the first year of his life sentence, Rideau asked to join the then-all-white newspaper, the Angolite, only to have administrative officials turn him down. "I read in the paper that they couldn't find a black who could write," he says. The rejection stung. Over the past decade, he had penned a book-length analysis of criminality and corresponded with a young editor at a New York publishing house, who tutored him in the art of writing. Rideau rounded up an all-black staff and started The Lifer, which chronicled stories like that of a group of elderly women who brought a truckload of toilet paper to the prison and were turned away. Eventually, the administration put him out of business. "They threw me in the dungeon saying I was advocating insurrection," he says. White prisoners petitioned a black senator to demand Rideau's release from solitary confinement. "Along the way, the whites that I initially saw as enemies befriended me and fought for me, not blacks," he says. "That experience caused hell with the way I saw things."
In 1975, the warden made Rideau editor of the Angolite as part of compliance with a federal court order mandating integration of the segregated Angola prison. A year later a new warden, C. Paul Phelps, arrived and offered to strike a deal. Phelps promised that the Angolite would operate under the same standards that applied to journalists in the free world--he could print whatever he could prove--so long as Rideau would teach him about life at Angola. Over the years, the two men had many philosophical and political discussions. And they ate together in the dining hall. "He told me that like begets like," Rideau says. Phelps permitted Rideau to become a public speaker, a reward for well-behaved prisoners to travel and explain the dangers of prison life to youth at risk. And with his new freedom, Rideau jettisoned a longtime plan to escape. "The thing that is most respected in prison is character, loyalty, keeping your word," says Rideau. "These are things that are highly valued in the real world, but they are really, really valued in ours." This and the passage of time have changed him. "Part of it is just growing up," he says. And growing up has meant a realization that he may die in prison. Since 1997 Rideau has been president of the Angola Human Relations Club, which cares for elderly inmates by providing such essentials as toiletries, warm caps and gloves, and which buries the dead.
After Rideau became editor of the Angolite, the paper changed from a mimeographed newsletter into a glossy magazine exposing systemic problems and an emotional inner life. One story revealed that the Department of Corrections had doled out money for AIDS programs that were never implemented. Another issue featured pictures of inmates after electrocution--a portrait so horrifying that Louisiana changed its method to lethal injection. The magazine has won seven nominations for a National Magazine Award, and Rideau has won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the George Polk Award and an Academy Award nomination for The Farm, a documentary film about Angola that he co-directed. He co-edited a book, Life Sentences (Random House). He addressed the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1989 and 1990. And he's a correspondent for National Public Radio's Fresh Air program. While Lake Charles watched, the man many faulted with ushering in an era of crime became a nationally respected writer and commentator. "There's no way you're going to give life back where it's been taken," Rideau opined on Nightline in 1990. "But you--you just try to make up.... When it's all over and done with, Wilbert Rideau will have tried."
One blistering August afternoon in Lake Charles, I locked my keys in my rental car and called "Pop-A-Lock" for help. As owner Jim Rawley jimmied the lock, he recalled the night Rideau committed the crime. Rawley was in high school then. His friends wanted to kill Rideau and mobbed the courthouse. "There was a group of vigilantes among us," he says. "I can't remember the specifics. But I remember the atmosphere. Macho kind of stuff, except that we were scared too." Years later, Rawley became a Calcasieu Parish deputy and knew Rideau, who was awaiting trial in the Lake Charles jail, as "a troublemaker." Once, he says, a friend and fellow officer "beat the hell out of [Rideau]" for being "belligerent and uncooperative." When asked if he thought Rideau had changed, he said, "By all appearances he has rehabilitated himself, for lack of a better word. He seems to be a different man than he used to be. But that doesn't negate what he did.... It doesn't change the fact that he was convicted three times. He has never claimed that he didn't commit the crimes. He is fortunate he didn't receive the death penalty." He also said Rideau is a burden to the courts and should stop appealing his case. "If he's a different person he needs to go through the pardon board," he argued. But everyone knows that governors have blocked his release. Rawley shrugs, "It's already been decided, then."
Rawley's reaction was typical of whites I met. Rideau's good actions matter little next to the fact that he escaped the death penalty, as if death had somehow been cheated. And one has to wonder if there isn't some jealousy of his fame in the world outside Lake Charles. Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Berkeley, calls the unceasing and vindictive punishment of those who have committed bad acts, without regard for the genuineness of their remorse or rehabilitation, "punitive individualism." Law-abiding people don't want prisoners to have anything they can't have--thus the 1994 elimination of Pell Grants (federal educational scholarships) for prisoners and the conflicts over whether taxpayers should pay for weightlifting equipment for prisoners. Rideau represents the extreme of this line of thinking: Most of us are never going to get to be on Nightline. Why does this murderer get to do it? Many white observers view the legal mistakes in his case as technicalities, and his appeals a waste of taxpayer money. After the arraignment, a blue-blazered security guard grabbed my hand very tightly and muttered, "If I killed your grandmother could you rehabilitate her?"
And the more well-known a defendant, the more the public focuses on preventing release. In this sense, Rideau is not unlike famous white prisoners who can't get a break despite impeccable prison records--like Kathy Boudin, the former Weather Underground radical, denied parole last August for a 1981 murder conviction; or Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer executed in 1998, even after the victim's brother begged Texas Governor George W. Bush to pardon her. Their violent offenses do not elicit leniency. "It's not that people are afraid he is going to do it to her again," says Currie. "They are saying, 'Anybody who does this can't be free again; in our moral universe that can't happen.'" This attitude pervades public policy. Federal laws passed in 1994 provide matching funds to states to keep violent criminals in prison longer by denying parole.
But perhaps the biggest strike against Rideau is his race: No black man convicted of murdering a white person in Lake Charles has ever been released from prison, according to The Rideau Project, a research effort at Loyola University in New Orleans (see www.wilbertrideau.com). Whether or not people were alive at the time of the crime, feelings seem to be as strong as they were forty years ago. A 33-year-old white saleswoman at an electronics store, who asked not to be identified, said, "He should die the same death like everyone else," adding that she had to put her kids in private schools because of the "kids who cause trouble." She then mouthed the word "blacks." Her co-worker, a 30-year-old white man, used lynching imagery to say he agreed: "They should have swung him a long time ago." But then he asked, "What did he do?"
This is what gives District Attorney Rick Bryant his mandate. He's up for re-election in November, which means trying Rideau during campaign fundraising season. In two conversations, one at his desk and a second in a downtown bar, he said that even if Rideau were rehabilitated (and he wouldn't admit this), he would reprosecute. "He did the crime, didn't he?" Bryant refuses to recognize his own prosecutorial discretion, implying that he actually doesn't have the power to decide not to prosecute. This may be true, but only in the sense that his political survival in this majority-white town depends on a conviction. "They are trying to make me into a glorified pardon board. I am not a pardon board. I am a DA. Like I should be God of this case! Like I don't care! Or that I should decide he's a good guy in prison! That is not my job. The only reason I would not retry him is if there is no evidence, he's innocent or the victims want his release," he says. I suggest that his job is to seek justice, not just to convict, and that a retrial can only divide the town. "They line up and tell me to keep him in prison," Bryant says.
Of course, there are those--mostly black and some influential whites--lining up on the other side, too. Cliff Newman, an attorney and Democratic state senator from 1980 to 1988, once lobbied the governor to keep Rideau in prison at the behest of Dora McCain, the only victim who is still alive today. In the following years, Newman met Rideau in Angola at the prison rodeo and followed his story in the media. Today Newman has changed his mind: "From a political point of view it is not popular to ever say a murderer should be released. But I am not in politics anymore. And I am not going to be. Everyone is capable of rehabilitation."
Even conservative whites are hard pressed to argue that Rideau is not a different man today. Bill Shearman, owner of the town's conservative weekly newspaper, said, "Well, yeah, I think Rideau is rehabilitated," explaining that his view isn't representative. "Only a scant minority realized he has changed." Jim Beam, 68, a columnist of the American Press, the conservative daily that has opposed Rideau's freedom, admitted, "If you asked me if he's rehabilitated I would say yes." And Peggi Gresham, retired assistant warden and Angolite supervisor for twelve years, said, "I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I don't think that everybody should get out. But when a person is as successful as some individuals are they can get out and have a good life. Wilbert is one of those people."
Young black professionals I met generally thought Rideau should be released because he has changed but see his plight as a remnant of past prejudice that doesn't really concern them. Rideau's real support in Lake Charles has come from the local NAACP and black press who believe that Rideau didn't commit the crime alone and is part of a larger conspiracy. "Blacks don't rob banks and they don't commit suicide," says Lawrence Morrow, publisher and editor of the black magazine Gumbeaux. Rideau had a good job, they argue, at a time when it was difficult for blacks to find jobs, and he took only $14,000, leaving $30,000 in the bank. Joshua Castille, 73, a retired black law enforcement officer, had drinks with Rideau the night before the crime and saw no peculiar behavior. He believes Rideau acted in concert with bank manager Hickman. Even back then, he said, a bank would never open its doors after closing hours. For a black person? "For anyone," he says. "They just wouldn't do it." The contrasting perceptions of the Rideau case among blacks and whites is emblematic of the different ways the two groups view crime, as well as issues like the death penalty. "Blacks are more likely to understand that people like Rideau are less likely to have committed the crime because they are monsters than because of circumstances that put them in that situation-- 'there but for their fortune go I,'" says Currie. "And they know that the criminal justice system has been pushed toward punishing blacks more than whites for as long as the justice system has existed."
Rideau's trial could go either way. On the one hand, Lake Charles elects its judges and Judge Carter is accountable to a black constituency that cares about this case enormously, which could mean openness to arguments about prosecutorial vindictiveness. On the other hand, when Carter's son, then 16, was charged with second-degree murder, he received a plea deal from Bryant reducing the charge to manslaughter--which, critics say, could predispose the judge to be friendly to the prosecution. And while, after so many years of appeals, the evidence is mostly lost, Dora McCain's lawyer, Frank Salter, the original prosecutor, said she would testify, which could mean a conviction based on her testimony alone (McCain did not respond to interview requests). Rideau's lawyer is the formidable George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, but it isn't yet clear how Judge Carter feels about counsel who swoops in from New York.
Rideau says if he does get out, he wants to leave Louisiana and write two books. "And neither one of them is about me," he says, explaining that he hopes to redefine criminality. "But I am telling you they are going to give me the Pulitzer Prize for this." It's hardly what Lake Charles wants to hear. When does he believe punishment should stop? "Whatever it should be, it should be," he says. "But it should be equal."