America is in mourning today for the legend it once referred to variously as “Cassius Clay,” “uppity nigger,” and–in transcripts of FBI wiretaps–simply “C,” the FBI’s derogatory replacement for the name the man called himself: Muhammad Ali.
In remembrances around the country, Ali was not remembered as standing for everything America stood against. He was not memorialized for his opposition to asinine U.S. wars. He was not paid tribute to for seeking social and economic justice. He was not celebrated for becoming Muslim. He was not honored as a man hated for his skin almost as much as he was hated for his mouth.
No one mentioned that the world’s most beloved man of the 20th century was hated by America for not hating himself. But if anyone ever forgot that he was a blazing star of charisma, a transformative figure in American history, a quick and hilarious showman, and an athlete of unprecedented skill and accomplishment, Ali was happy to remind them.
Ali, convicted in court of dodging the draft, was demonized by the mainstream media, targeted by death threats, and faced five years in prison. It took the Supreme Court to rule that the draft board should have specified what Ali’s reason was, despite the fact that he was pretty fucking clear he thought America was a bigger piece of shit than usual for telling Americans they had to go kill people who had never done anything as bad to them as America had. Only the court’s conviction couldn’t stand; Ali’s always did.
Had he been convicted then, today, almost fifty years later, Ali would not have been allowed to vote in his home state of Kentucky. Today.
At times an ally of Malcolm X, who was hated by much of white America until he was silenced by gunfire, and an ally of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was hated by much of white America until he was silenced by white gunfire, Muhammad Ali was—unlike them–hated by much of white America until he was silenced by Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s Disease can be caused by repeated blows to the head, which can be caused by the reality that repeated blows to black bodies have been one of the few avenues to economic success not historically closed to black men (except for when they were). Parkinson’s Disease can also be exacerbated by inflammation of white boxing authorities, causing career blockages in every fucking state in the country during the years when you are quickest–and best able to avoid a Parkinson’s Jab or a Parkinson’s Hook.
But it was not Ali’s political positions that first led American boxing to cast him out. He was stripped of his titles first for joining the Nation of Islam, because America has never read the Treaty of Tripoli. A federal judge even foundthat other draft dodgers had been allowed to keep boxing as long as they remained Christian while punching the shit out of other men’s brains.
Ali’s contributions to society include every fucking thing white America hated him for, as well as helping anti-FBI activists by fighting his first bout with Joe Frazier, which so distracted the patriotic, TV-watching guards at an FBI office, that the activists were able to break in that night and uncover a trove of FBI wiretaps—including those of King and Ali talking on the phone.
In later years he became revered by white Americans for graciously not reminding them every fucking day of the thousand indignities large and small they had visited upon him. In an emotional tribute posted online, white America said, “Muhammad Ali really brought us together today in common erasure of just how small and scared and shitty we are. Only by not recognizing how fucked up we treated him can we move on to continue treating people of color the same way today when they celebrate themselves or try to fix our fucked-up systems. Thank you, Cassius.”
Ali is survived by his family and a nation that reveres him as an American icon while simultaneously reviling the activists he supported and who do today exactly what he would have been doing. Funeral services will be held in his hometown of Louisville, which in 1975 voted 6-to-fucking-FIVE to name a street for him.
Muhammad Ali was 74 years old. And timeless.