Commentary: How Muhammad Ali turned black anger into civic sainthood

Fri Jun 10, 2016 9:03am EDT
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By David Dante Troutt

Lost in the haze of praise for “The Greatest” is how this butterfly — “pretty” as any person before or after him — stung like a bee not just in the boxing ring but particularly outside it.

Muhammad Ali, whose funeral is Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, was the rarest of black men because his unapologetic anger was forgiven over the course of a beloved life. The arc of his anger and the world’s embrace of it marked an epochal change in society -- something else Ali managed to teach us as we take the measure of his legend following his death on June 3 at age 74.

Ali angrily rejected the role expected of a black man in American society – non-threatening and passive. How does such a black man become deeply beloved in a culture that so often criminalizes, consciously and unconsciously, the first signs of aggression in black boys and men? This is not a typical transformation in America. White male anger can be the stuff of presidential campaigns. But black male anger gets suppressed. What distinguished Ali?

Sure, Ali’s activism followed the bold examples of earlier black athletes, such as Jack Johnson, Althea Gibson and Jesse Owens. He shared his era with Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe. But prize fighters aim to hurt you. Ali beat people up. To be the heavyweight champion of the world and to be black meant carrying the rage and the hope of an oppressed people into symbolic battle. To do it angry, many people feared, could put Ali — and all black people — at risk of the wrath of American whites.

In 1967, after Ali returned to the ring and became heavyweight champion, Jackie Robinson compared him to other champs. “One thing is certain,” Robinson said. “He is the most hated. He is hated because he is a Muslim. He is also hated because he speaks his mind.”

Understanding why Ali became so beloved is easier than knowing how it could happen. For one, Ali was not only “pretty,” as he often reminded us. He was also pretty funny.

He saved his most serious verbal fearsomeness for his opponents in the ring. To the public he loved, he supplied an arresting charm and hilarity. It may have been cruel for a black man to publicly call another black man a “big ugly bear.” When Ali did, it was also as hilarious as a game of dozens.

When Ali said that a win over him by white boxer Chuck Wepner would make Wepner “America’s greatest hero” and put him on TV commercials, he was helping Americans laugh at their racism. Only Richard Pryor did it better. And that was his job.   Continued...

Muhammad Ali (L) punches Richard Dunn while fighting for the WBC & WBA Heavyweight Title in Munich, Germany, May 24, 1976. Action Images / Sporting Pictures/File Photo