King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero

by David Remnick

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"I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man," Ali told me. "I had to show that to the world." Given the time period and the country where he lived, what did Ali mean by this quote?

Ali was a path breaker in the sense that his outward persona did not conform to the style in which black people in US society had always been expected to act.

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Ali was a path breaker in the sense that his outward persona did not conform to the style in which black people in US society had always been expected to act.

Of course, black people had been prominent in public life in America going at least as far back as...

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Benjamin Banneker and, a few decades later, Frederick Douglass, as well as many others during the time before Emancipation. And specifically in Ali's field, boxing, the US had already seen two African American heavyweight champions: Jack Johnson and Joe Louis.

Yet none of these men had publicly behaved as Ali did. Ali basically acted as if he did not care what white people thought of him. He spoke often in a kind of playful rhyme in which he was subtly (and at times more openly) making fun of his audience. Rather than avoiding controversy, he invited it, most prominently in his outspoken stance against the Vietnam War and in his openly stating that the war itself was hypocritical, given that African American men were being conscripted to fight for "freedom" overseas when there was no freedom for them at home.

In the past, African American public figures had been low-key and deferential, but Ali taunted his opponents, especially Joe Frazier, implying that Frazier should be criticized because he was too old style, too deferential to the whites. In doing so, Ali was essentially using his rivalry with Frazier to make a larger point about racism and those who might be complicit in it without necessarily being aware that they were doing so.

Ali was a seminal force in the Civil Rights movement. Even his changing his name was at that time a provocative act, and the fact that his doing so was criticized brought out the unfairness and extent of the racial oppression endemic in US society at that time. By becoming the "new kind of black man" he intended, Ali led the way for others.

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Remnick mentions this quote on page xiii of the Prologue of his book. By speaking these words, Ali meant that his professional boxing career was not simply a way to make money or gain fame. It was instead his way to prove his worth as a black man and to support the ongoing Civil Rights movement.

When Ali began boxing in the early 1960s, the Civil Rights movement was operating in full force. As Remnick notes, there were sit-ins in Nashville during the same year Ali won a gold medal at the Rome Summer Olympics). Soon afterward, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I have a dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington.

As Remnick writes, black athletes were supposed to remain apolitical and uninvolved in these issues. They were also supposed to be subservient and follow the Jim Crow laws that made blacks inferior to whites. Ali was one of the first black athletes who refused to pay by these rules. He showed the world that he could be political and make a political statement through his professional career. For example, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammed Ali. The pressing civil rights issues of the day made this kind of statement important to him.

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In this quotation Ali is referring to the early 1960's, when the civil rights movement in America was gathering momentum in the face of entrenched and institutionalized racism. In the southern states of America the Jim Crow laws still legalized racial segregation. In 1963, between 200,000 and 300,000 Americans marched on Washington to demand equal civil and economic rights for African-Americans. Amidst this unrest, in 1964, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and in so doing began to forge a new identity as a black man in America. Cassius Clay was Muhammad Ali's "slave name," and so in changing his name he was symbolically casting off the shackles of slavery which bound him to that past. He was forging his own identity as an independent man, and the first step was to cast off his slave name and take instead what he called his "free name." This, in part, is what Ali meant when he said that he "had to prove you could be a new kind of black man."

Ali is also referring in this quotation to the representation of black men in boxing in the early 1960s. The three most prominent heavyweights at this time were Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, and Muhammad Ali. Floyd Patterson was gentlemanly, softly spoken and was cast by many as "the good negro." He was an advocate of the civil rights movement but at the same time didn't advocate too loudly. Sonny Liston, on the other hand, was cast as "the bad negro." Liston had a criminal record and also had ties with the mob. He was portrayed as animalistic, monstrous, and threatening. He was, in short, cast as a personification of every lazy, racist stereotype of black men. When Ali said that he wanted to be a "new kind of black man," he in part meant that he wanted to break free of the stereotypes that Patterson and Liston had been saddled with.

It's reasonable to argue that Ali was successful in forging for himself a new identity as "a new kind of black man." He was neither deferential like Patterson, nor monstrous like Liston. In 1968, he demonstrated his independence when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War, declaring that, "I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality." Although at the time Ali was branded by many as a traitor, his stance on the Vietnam War has since been vindicated, and is now widely perceived as brave and virtuous. He is now, almost three years after his death, regarded as one of the most unique, most loved and most respected figures in all of America's sporting history.

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