The shameful distortion of Muhammad Ali's legacy

John Wight
John Wight has written for newspapers and websites across the world, including the Independent, Morning Star, Huffington Post, Counterpunch, London Progressive Journal, and Foreign Policy Journal. He is also a regular commentator on RT and BBC Radio. John is currently working on a book exploring the role of the West in the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnWight1
Muhammad Ali. © Action Images
Predictably, though lamentably, before his body had even grown cold, they started clamoring to attach themselves to Muhammad Ali and his legacy.

A boxer who, in his day, practiced the most primitive and brutal of sports with the grace and poetry associated with fine art, a man who outside the ring stood in defiance of the racial oppression that was the accomplished fact in the land of the free, Muhammad Ali represented the very antithesis of the hypocrisy which his passing has unleashed from the great and the good in a country that once reviled him.

We are talking about people such as former US President Bill Clinton, who following the news of Ali’s death after a brief battle with respiratory illness said: "He made decisions and he lived with the consequences of them. He never stopped being an American even as he became a citizen of the world."

One of the “decisions” that Ali made was to champion the cause of black people living in the projects and the slums of America’s vast inner cities, the very demographic that Clinton’s policy of mass incarceration - i.e. the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 – decimated.

Over three decades later the result of that crime bill is a US prison population of over two million people, disproportionately made up of members of the country’s minority communities, in particular the black community.

Ali was well aware of the racial injustice that lies at the heart of the US justice system, wherein poor blacks are warehoused in the country’s vast prison network as a result of social problems that are a symptom of the inequality and poverty that blights their communities and has not improved since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. During a TV interview that took place in advance of his 1972 fight against Al ‘Blue’ Lewis in Ireland, he recited a poem he had written in tribute to the men involved in the Attica Prison Revolt of 1971, when hundreds of inmates incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York State rose up against inhumane conditions and treatment by the guards. It lasted four days and ended in a massacre when the then governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, ordered the use of lethal force by the state police to regain control of the prison from the inmates.

With this history in mind – Clinton’s role in the mass incarceration of poor blacks and Ali’s stance on behalf of those condemned to a life of poverty, alienation and the crime that follows in a nation in which race and class are two sides of the same coin – the fact that the former president will be delivering a eulogy at Ali’s funeral in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky is a travesty and a grotesque distortion of the man’s legacy.

Another who has distorted Ali’s legacy in the wake of his passing is current President, Barack Obama, who in a written statement described him as "a man who fought for what was right…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 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." 

Reading the president’s glowing tribute it is impossible not to reflect on the plight of Chelsea Manning, who as Muhammad Ali did when it came to the US war in Vietnam, took a moral stance against the US war in Iraq, another imperialist war that was unleashed on the basis of a pack of lies and in which millions suffered. The hypocrisy stinks when we consider that while the President lauds Ali as a hero Manning is currently serving 35 years in prison.

Ali’s legacy is defined by the stance he took against the Vietnam War, when in 1967 he refused to be inducted into the US Armed Forces under the draft and earned the opprobrium of the country’s entire political and media establishment in the process. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, his license to fight, and faced prison. Yet despite this he never once flinched or took a step back, famously stating: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

Manning, meanwhile, while serving as an intelligence officer in the US Army passed on documents and most notoriously video footage, revealing war crimes being committed by US forces against the Iraqi people. In defense of his actions, Manning said: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me…was the seemly delightful bloodlust the Aerial Weapons Team seemed to have. They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as “dead bastards,” and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers.”

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama should hang their heads in shame for daring to try and associate themselves with Muhammad Ali and his legacy upon his death. It is an insult to everything the man stood for and believed.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.