Jonathan Eig in Slate:
The writer Stanley Crouch has a great line about Muhammad Ali. When Ali came to fame in the 1960s, he was a grizzly bear, fierce and uncontrollable, Crouch told Ishmael Reed in an interview. In the second act of his career, Ali was a circus bear, still dangerous but also entertaining. In his last act, when he no longer seemed threatening, Ali was a teddy bear, soft and comforting and silent. It’s Ali the grizzly bear who is frequently invoked as the country debates whether athletes like Colin Kaepernick should protest police violence on a national stage. But in hailing Ali for carving the path for those like Kaepernick, we often forget the high price the boxer paid for his political views. We forget that Ali had to be declawed to be beloved. When Cassius Clay joined the Nation of Islam and dropped what he considered his slave name to become Muhammad Ali, he was attacked by politicians and the media. “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents,” wrote Jimmy Cannon. Even Martin Luther King Jr. said Ali “should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.” When he refused to fight in the U.S. military in Vietnam, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He remained free while appealing the conviction, but boxing officials stripped him of the heavyweight championship and his license to box. He was called a coward, a traitor, a dupe, and an uppity N-word.
During all this, Ali stood almost completely alone.
In 1967, a group of America's top black athletes including Jim Brown and Bill Russell met with Ali in Cleveland. Legend has it they gathered to show support for Ali. But I found evidence to the contrary in researching my Ali biography. Those other black athletes were really gathered in an attempt to convince Ali to make a deal with the government and get back to boxing, having been offered a financial incentive by one of Ali’s white boxing promoters to do so. Only when Ali refused, saying he’d die before compromising, did the athletes issue a statement of support for their peer. Ali lost three-and-a-half prime years and millions of dollars. When the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, he said he wouldn’t sue for damages. He’d done what he thought was right, Ali said, and the government lawyers did what they thought was right. Everyone was entitled to his own view.