Another comeback for ‘the greatest’

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By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

There are two events seared deep in my memory about “the greatest” — Muhammad Ali — neither one of which remotely involves boxing.

Some of the buzz about documentary kingpin Ken Burns’ multi-part PBS series on Ali, which premiered Sept. 19, brought these memories back. In his three wilderness years in the late 1960s when Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for refusing to be inducted into the Army, he kept busy lecturing on college campuses.

One of his stops was at Cal State Los Angeles, my alma mater. Ali arrived on campus followed by a small swarm of FBI agents. Wherever Ali went, FBI agents tracked his every move. This didn’t matter to me. In fact, it added to his allure.

I and a small entourage of Black Student Union members, met him in the parking lot to serve as his “official” escorts to the auditorium. Ali was the paragon of cheer and graciousness and was, as always, playful.

He shook everyone’s hand and engaged in light-hearted banter with the students. In his talk, he stuck to his stock themes, leading a chant, “No Vietcong ever called me a nigger,” punctuated by digs at the Johnson administration and his denunciation of racial oppression. During his speech, the FBI took notes and snapped pictures of those in the crowd.

However, what brought the house down, was his shout to the standing-room-only crowd that despite everything the government did to him, he still was the biggest, baddest and prettiest, and yes the greatest. As he departed to loud cheers and shouts of encouragement, I and a few others, thrust our draft cards in front of him, and he eagerly signed mine and the others. To this day, his signature on my draft card is one of my most precious and endearing keepsakes.

Shortly after that, Ali made a brief appearance at a giant anti-Vietnam March and rally in Los Angeles. Again, I and a handful of others joined in as part of Ali’s “protective” escort entourage to and from the rally. He inked my draft card again.

In the near half-century since then, Ali has been one of the most talked about, written about, filmed about, and still lionized figures in American history. It’s like what on Earth could Burns or any other writer or filmmaker say that hasn’t been said about Ali?

Ali was once America’s official and biggest pariah. His conversion to the Nation of Islam, his one-time friendship with Malcolm X, his outspoken black preachments, all capped by his refusal to be inducted into the Army, and his outspoken stance against the Vietnam War made him a marked man.

A federal grand jury in Houston quickly indicted him and an all-white jury convicted him. He was slapped with the maximum punishment of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. His passport was revoked.

The FBI stepped up its effort to ruin him. In one of its many wiretaps on Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, it noted that Ali had proposed to donate the proceeds from a boxing match to King’s organization.

But the match could not be held, since every state boxing commission in the country had, by then, revoked Ali’s license.

Still, the FBI was alert for any hint that Ali might try to dodge legal restrictions on him to earn money in the ring. The obsessive political witch-hunting FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover assigned waves of agents to watch and record everything that Ali said whenever he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.”

FBI agents also distributed “anti-violent statements” to counter what the bureau called “the anti-Vietnam stand of Cassius Clay.”

The FBI’s spy-and-intimidation operation against Ali was finally exposed in legal documents in his draft case in 1970.

In the next two decades, the unthinkable happened. Ali was no longer America’s fallen and disgraced boxing champion. He was now officially rehabilitated, even exulted, as an American global ambassador of the sport and even of political goodwill.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attack, a Hollywood group loosely known as Hollywood 9/11 that worked with the Bush administration to support the war on terrorism promoted happy images of American life to film audiences in Africa and the Middle East. And who did they choose to be their star pitchman? Ali.

During the next decade, the honors continued to flow to him. Presidents, heads of state and foreign dignitaries all hailed him as an authentic American hero and icon. But Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease had taken its toll.

In the rare times he appeared in public, I noted that he still had that same ingratiating smile he greeted me with those years earlier. And he would snap out an occasional playful jab to swooning and adoring admirers.

Burns is an unabashed hero worshipper of Ali and doesn’t try to hide it. The hyperbole notwithstanding, Burns found something else in Ali worth talking about that had nothing to do with boxing. That something still makes him “the greatest.”

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Bring Back the Poll Tax — The GOP War on Voting Rights” (Amazon). He also is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network Saturdays at 9 a.m.

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