Muhammad Ali died this week. I put up a post yesterday but it seems inadequate.
He and I were both born in 1942 and his death reminded me of my own mortality.
I admired Ali, not only for his fighting skills but for the way he lived is life. I must admit however that this admiration only came as I grew older and learned the way the world really is.
I was born a working class son of Italian immigrants. Poppa had an 8th grade education and we were down low on the economic ladder. We were never homeless; never hungry, but we wore hand me down clothes and never took a vacation. I graduated high school at the age of 16 (I skipped the 8th grade completely) on a Thursday and went to work on Monday. There was no money for college and my contribution to the household income allowed us to buy a better used car.
I didn’t know any black people. There were no blacks in my poor all white neighborhood. High school didn’t teach about Jim Crow. There were no “white” and “colored” signs in Brooklyn. This is the world I was given.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”
Yes Muhammad, I was one of those small men.
I distinctly remember my friends and I rooting for Ingemar Johansson when he took the heavy weight title from Floyd Paterson. Why root for a Swede over an American? Ingemar was the white guy.
I enlisted in the army in 1963 because I was 21 and still not making enough money to move out of my father’s house. It was the only way I could lighten his burden. It never dawned on me that poor kids were being drafted while college kids got deferments.
The great movements of the mid 1960’s, civil rights and the anti-war movement were all but ignored by me, a low educated member of the poor white working class serving in the military because he couldn’t make enough money outside the army to live on his own.
I was now a young married man with more important things to do. The news however was filled with nightly reports of violence and death, both at home at abroad. I listened. I thought. I began to understand.
My younger brother was drafted and promptly sent to the war zone. Decades would go by before I understood – George Bush got into a cushy reserve unit which would never leave Texas; Bill Clinton went to England to study; Donald Trump got 4 deferments and was rejected from service for a heel spur. Emerson Boozer, a running back for the New York Jets stood behind me at the induction center. He was rejected for flat feet while the army in it’s wisdom took 135 lb. Torrito as a soldier. I was learning.
I saw the news from the south; sit-ins, freedom summer, Selma. Riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark. And then Muhammad Ali, whom I knew as Cassius Clay, stood up and said it all. He would not go kill non-whites overseas when he couldn’t eat at a lunch counter at home in Louisville. I had never seen segregation, let alone experienced it.
Talk about speaking truth to power!
While my opinions slowly changed (I began to see the common thread between this poor white kid in Brooklyn and a poor black kid in Louisville and the connection of both to the class struggle and Vietnam) I didn’t DO anything.
There were anti-war demonstrations outside of my army post regularly. I never had the balls to join one even though I had come to the conclusion that the Vietnam war was a dreadful mistake. I was in the army and I followed legal orders. My younger brother was in the war zone. Our youngest brother, gone a dozen years now, refused service. They never came for him; there were by this time too many to chase down.
Yes I sympathized with the plight of black people but I was not one of them. I was a poor Italian kid, a wop, with problems of his own. I never marched. I never put myself at risk. I let others do that even as I knew they were right.
I risked nothing. Muhammad Ali risked everything.
After I was discharged from the military I supported those political candidates who reflected my recently acquired views. Pro civil rights. Pro voting rights. Anti-war. We got Richard Nixon thanks to the white working class I had left behind.
We forgot how radical Muhammad was.
I went to college. I took a job in a bank. When I retired I was a senior officer of one of the largest banks in America.
What did Muhammad Ali teach me? He taught me to explore my power and do what I could.
I had gay members on my staff and would not fire them just because they were “queer”. I had minorities on my staff. They laughed -“The only spot we could get in this lily white institution was working for a guinea!”. I had two Muslims on staff – a Sunni from Morocco and a Shite from Syria. I made arrangements if they wanted to pray during business hours and offered adjusted hours if they needed during Ramadan. They didn’t.
And when I was head of the International Division I refused to lend money and financial support to the criminal fascist dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. When criticized I argued that lending to these regimes was bad business – if overthrown a new government might refuse to repay these loans.
I never got my head busted. I never put it all at risk. I couldn’t do that. I never had his bravery.
But I did what I could.