Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war.
Muhammad Ali celebrated his 65th birthday this week, and the tributes are reading like love letters from besotted tweens. ESPN alone has dedicated a stream of programming, including one special called Ali Rap, which contends the great boxing champion actually invented rap music. (No truth to the rumor that ESPN is also producing Ali’s Astrophysics, which contends that he, not Isaac Newton, first posited the inverse-square law of universal gravitation.)
This rush to adulation comes with an unprecedented push by Ali’s business agents to market him as a modern-day Elvis. The Champ, who now suffers from Parkinson’s disease and dementia, last year made a deal with CKX Inc. for $50 million. CKX Inc. is the same company that put Presley’s image on velvet paintings and commemorative shot glasses around the world.
CKX Inc. marked The Champ’s birthday with the release of a new line of snack foods bearing his likeness. With names such as “Rumble,” “Shuffle” and “Jabs” and flavors such as “Fruit Fight,” “Thrill-A-Dill-A” and “Slammin’ Salsa,” the snacks will target college students across the country. The 18-to-24 set is the perfect demographic for Ali, according to Charles Sharp, professor of marketing at the University of Louisville. As Sharp told the Associated Press, young students are ideal since market research shows they know “the Ali brand” but are unaware of his early years as an unrepentant black nationalist and resister to the war in Vietnam.
“They’re going to remember the media-spun image of Ali, which is mostly positive,” Sharp said.
The irony of this repellent spectacle is that as the Ali brand grows in stature, his all-but-forgotten history as a war resister could not be more relevant. Today Iraq is the new Vietnam, with words and phrases like “quagmire,” “body bags” and “civilian death tolls” returning to the national lexicon. At such a moment remembering the actual Ali becomes a question of salvaging a past that can offer a challenge to the horrors of the present.
Muhammad Ali’s brilliance was not that he was some kind of antiwar prophet. He wasn’t Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr. in boxing gloves, debating foreign policy between rounds. But unlike the Ivy League advisers who made up the “best and brightest,” Ali understood then that there was justice and injustice, right and wrong. He knew that not taking a stand could be as political a statement as taking one. This was Ali’s code, and he never wavered.