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What Happened To The Muhammad Ali I Idolized, Blackistone Asks


Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest this Friday in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. And all the remembrances since the passing of this legend have left commentator Kevin Blackistone wondering - what happened to the Ali he idolized?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: What I remember most about the 1996 Olympics, when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta, wasn't Parkinson's shaking him as he stood on what appeared a precarious perch with a flaming torch in one hand.

Instead, it was Bob Costas later telling the millions watching on NBC that Ali would receive a gold medal to replace the one from the 1960 Rome Games that he lost. Lost, not that he chucked into the Ohio River, as he recounted many times, after being slighted because of his skin color, no matter the pride he'd won for his country.

It wasn't Costas' intent, of course. But it did accelerate the disfiguration of the Ali narrative. It began when Parkinson's increasingly muted his righteous audacity 20-plus years ago. It is all but being cemented in the days since his death last Friday. Everybody loves the post-black power, post-anti-war movement, not-so-militant Ali who was being highlighted.

But this is what happens to transcendent, radical, black figures. Image-makers, accidentally or intentionally, reconstruct their radicalism into something more digestible. Nelson Mandela becomes an avuncular figure rather than the mastermind of Spear of the Nation, the armed wing of the African National Congress. Jackie Robinson is no longer the strident race man who was court-martialed for refusing to surrender a bus seat in the Jim Crow South. And as Harriet Tubman moves onto our $20 bill, it will be for the Underground Railroad, not for leading armed freedom fighters on attacks against Confederate slave states.

The remembrances of Ali in the immediate wake of his death remind me that he must be reclaimed for what made him - for being defrocked of his first world heavyweight championship because he dared exercise his religious freedom, reject his given name Cassius Clay as a slave name and openly taking counsel from Malcolm X; for becoming a target of Hoover's FBI; for mustering the boldness April 29, 1967, to refuse conscription into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and saunter from the Houston induction center despite threat of imprisonment; for suffering reams of defilement from media like the Los Angeles Times, which refused to call him by his name and denounced him as a black Benedict Arnold. And still, Ali stood.

Most observers since Friday noted Ali as a singular personality, unique in our history. But he was part of a lineage of militant, black athletes. These include athlete-turned-activists Paul Robeson and Jack Johnson, the first black man allowed to fight for and win the heavyweight championship. Both wound up exiled for their boldness in challenging majority American, that is to say white, societal norms. And like Ali, most importantly, they came to inspire and energize radical activism, particularly among people of color, here and abroad. This is their story. It shouldn't be so hard to tell.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Kevin Blackistone is a columnist for The Washington Post and teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.