Obama Would Have Put Muhammad Ali in Jail
Muhammad Ali was a bad man. He was a pretty man. He was the greatest of all time. He said so himself, and the man knew what he was talking about.
The former heavyweight champion of the world died Friday of septic shock at a Scottsdale, Arizona hospital. He was 74. Ali had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for three decades.
Any number of obituaries have been and will be written on Ali, some centered on his greatness in the ring, some on his flamboyant personality, and still others on his tireless humanitarian work during the years when he was suffering from his debilitating disease. I would just like to set the record straight regarding one eulogy, that written by President Barack Obama, both because it was such a revolting piece of cynical hypocrisy and because the truth about Ali it touches upon deserves to be remembered.
Obama lauds Ali for having been “a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and on the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”
Before we recall just what it was Muhammad Ali actually did in 1966 that cost him his title, let’s look first at “the America we recognize today.” We live in an America that seeks out and punishes those who tell the truth. Those who would dare hold this country to its own stated standards—Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Bill Binney and other whistleblowers—are hunted, vilified and persecuted. We live in an America that stagnates in a state of permanent war, prosecuting that war around the globe in the dual quest of monopolizing its imperial dominance of the world and raking in cash for the military-industrial complex. We live in an America that conducts drone strikes of city streets and wedding parties throughout the Middle East, going so far as to murder American citizens abroad without a conviction, without a trial, without so much as a charge or an explanation. We live in an America that surveilles its citizens’ every email, internet search and phone conversation. We live in an America that privatizes prisons and public schools, that condemns whole cities of poor people to drink lead-poisoned water and that reduces the role of citizenship to the act of voting in rigged, corporate-controlled elections. All of this, every plutocratic, homicidal, police-state bit of it, is done with the collaboration and smarmy cover of President Barack Obama. We can be sure of this: under the Obama administration, and with our corporate-subsidiary court system, the young Muhammad Ali would not have “nearly” been sent to jail, he would have been buried under it. And here’s why.
In 1966, at the age of 24, Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ, announced that he would not serve in the military. With everything to lose, this is what the young man from Louisville said: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what?… How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail!”
Ali was stripped of his title, and his boxing license was suspended by every state boxing commission in the country. And they certainly tried to put him in jail. In 1967, he was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. For four years, his prime fighting years, Ali defended his position in the courts, with the Supreme Court ultimately overturning his conviction in 1971.
It is not clear to me just whom Obama has in mind when he says that Ali earned enemies on the left and on the right. In 1966, by refusing to fight in Vietnam and kill Vietnamese peasants fighting for their freedom, he was declaring himself an enemy only of the right (unless by ‘left’ Obama means Lyndon Johnson). That declaration is more than Obama wants to admit. It’s safer for the president to tell the lie that Muhammad Ali took a principled but quirky stand, without naming the issue, than to admit that Muhammad Ali was correct in objecting to the Vietnam War and that he was correct in calling it a rich white man’s war. After all, Obama has U.S. troops killing and dying in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, and is briefed by his generals on the odds of winning a war with China.
Ali’s was not a lifelong commitment to the international working class. he would go on to endorse Ronald Reagan and even to accept a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the vile George W. Bush. So what. We need not filter Ali’s life in order to arrive at a simple, consistent or even coherent political mascot. Let us not be like Barack Obama. But what Muhammad Ali did in the late 1960’s went beyond brave. He gave up everything because his conscience demanded it. How many today can make that claim, and who is willing to give up as much as Muhammad Ali? When was the last time Barack Obama received so much as a post card from his conscience?
We live in an America and in a time when great sacrifices will soon be necessary if we are to wrestle from this moribund plutocracy a world hospitable to free and happy humans. To quote David Walsh, “Who will follow the example of Muhammad Ali’s principled stand in our day?”
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