“Where you been, boy?” When I heard those words in June 1966, I knew I was going to have rough time in the U.S. Navy. My immediate reply to that Petty Officer was, “Who are you calling a boy? I am a man!” I was twenty-one years old, already an angry, Black man who experienced separate bathrooms, water fountains, restaurants at Greyhound bus stops that had “Coloreds served round back” signs posted on their front doors, and having to sit in the balcony of the local theater in Winston-Salem, North Carolina during my two years of high school there. I was already angry about Medgar Evers, Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, and Malcolm X. So I knew at that very moment when I was called a “boy” by this southern White guy, I would be a marked man on that ship because of my belligerence and unwillingness to go along to get along.
Ten months later, when Muhammad Ali refused to step forward to be drafted, I took a step up, got on his shoulders and have been there ever since. My view from that perch has given me the spirit, the drive, the commitment, and the dedication to do what I have done for decades now. His example gave me the audacity and temerity to stand before anyone, White, Black or otherwise, to state my case and stand my ground. A backbone is much stronger than a wishbone; Ali had backbone, and he passed it on to me without ever knowing it.
Ali and those few athletes who stood with him were giants in a land of cowering, timid, “yessah” men. He was bold, brash, brave, and brutal in his in-your-face assessment of society’s ills. Ali was the personification of dreams, the realization of hopes, and the culmination of victory, with his fists as well as his voice, which could only be silenced by Parkinson’s disease.
His impact on my life has lasted for fifty years, and it will continue until I die. When they stripped him of his title and took away his right to earn a living, I became even angrier at the government for such a gross injustice. Years later, watching him fight the daily rounds of his real “Fight of the Century,” against such a relentless opponent as Parkinson’s, my commitment to help others grew even stronger.
Now that I am in the fight of my life, against my greatest opponent, ALS, which is similar to Parkinson’s in some ways, I think about Muhammad Ali often. I think about his children, especially his “Little Girl” Laila, in the same vein I think about my daughter, Kiah. And I pray that I will be strong like he was until the end. Ali’s strength made me a better person. I have the courage of my convictions and the fearless sacrificial mindset of that man among men.
In today’s society of “make money without making waves,” prominent athletes should learn from Ali. It was not enough to wear hoodies when Trayvon was killed, not enough to turn shirts inside out and throw them on the basketball court in response to a racist franchise owner, not enough to wear “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts after Eric Garner was choked to death, not enough to stand in front of the Walmart where John Crawford was killed for checking out a BB Gun, not enough just to voice outrage after Sandra Bland died inside a jail cell despite not committing a crime, and not enough to say, “I haven’t really been on top of this issue,” when twelve year-old Tamir Rice was executed for carrying a toy gun in the “Open Carry” State of Ohio. Empty gestures are temporary and cause no real changes.
It’s easier to speak highly of Muhammad Ali than it is to do what he did. I am proud to say that I did what he did, and will continue. I am reminded of the following quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2003 article titled “Compa$$ionate Capitali$m”:
“Forty years [after his death], it’s easy to quote Malcolm and put him on a postage stamp—now that we’ve killed him. Martin Luther King Jr. was ultimately abandoned by the civil rights establishment for his stand against poverty and war. Today he has a national holiday, and even conservatives have to honor him—now that he’s no longer here to shame them. Ditto for the Black Panthers. Everybody says their dad wore a black beret—now that J. Edgar Hoover isn’t alive to tap their phones.
Progressive vision almost always lacks mass appeal. While possibly enjoying a bit of rebellious sheen, prophetic insight is decidedly uncool; it involves the sacrifice of family livelihoods, the sullying of reputations, and, at worst, death. Only the afterglow is romantic. Everybody says they would have fought with Nat Turner—now that none of us are slaves.”
James Clingman is the nation’s most prolific writer on economic empowerment for Black people. His latest book, Black Dollars Matter! Teach your dollars how to make more sense, is available on his website, Blackonomics.com.