Originally published in the Huffington Post.
For most of my life, I haven’t idolized sports heroes. I may be the exception to the great American male rule-of-thumb.
There have been a few exceptions – mainly historical sports figures. I’ve always admired Jesse Owens, and the story of his victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
Nevertheless, when the question has come up over the years, “Who is your favorite athlete,” the answer may be easier for me than for real aficionados. There is not much competition in my mind between rival athletes. It’s him. Nobody else. You must know of whom I speak of, too. He died last week.
Who is my favorite athlete? I have known the answer since I was 13, growing up in Savannah, Georgia, during years in which the South was deeply polarized by intense tension, resentment, and volatile feuds over public school integration.
My most potent memories date to the mid to late 1970s when I was in middle school. I had all the usual anxieties that 13-year-old boys have – issues with social insecurity, self-esteem, those infamous school bullies, and of course, fear of and attraction to girls, girls, girls.
But issues of race in the South never took a backseat to typical pre-teen angst. Race had been a lightning rod in the South for much longer than my tender years. At 13, I was naïve, and I believed what I heard and saw. I saw fear, guilt and anxiety between blacks and whites everywhere. A white supremacist candidate for the governor of Georgia still aired commercials on television during those years. His name was J.B. Stoner and he crudely harangued voters of the state to “Get the nigger-lovers out of office. Vote for your white supremacist candidate!” Stoner never did well in the final gubernatorial vote, but he expressed the ire many whites felt in a changing world, which from a black perspective hadn’t changed enough.
The covert ways that adults expressed racial animosity often spilled out into the open among pre-adolescents. At that time, Roots, the book by Alex Haley, had become a popular TV miniseries that riveted America. It encouraged the nation to acknowledge the cruelty of slavery and represented a hint of progress.
But at Hubert Middle School in Savannah, many white kids (under the radar of teachers, but who I believe were likely influenced by their parents) cavalierly used the N-word and made fun of Roots — that sanctimonious (they would have said “dumb”) slavery story. A classmate, Dwayne C. (yes, I remember his name to this day) loved to hambone and playact that he was a slave being whipped, rolling in the dirt while crying, “Don’t hurt me, Massa. I’m Kunte Kinte!”
Not surprisingly, the public schools became a reflection of the racial battles playing out among adults. Differences between white and blacks and white resentment were made worse by court orders that forced schools to integrate. It was an era – not unlike today – characterized by wholesale white resentment over loss of privilege to a “threatening” black tide.
What does all this have to do with Muhammad Ali?
Adults debated public policy. Kids debated sports. Adults squabbled in newspaper editorials. Kids squabbled on the school bus. In terms of the verbal, psychological, or fisticuffs between white and black 13-year-old boys, no athlete provoked division like Muhammad Ali.
Or I could put this more simply. I never encountered a white kid at Hubert Middle who cheered for Ali to win bouts against fighters, such as Ken Norton or Leon Spinks. I don’t believe any existed. I remember a very squat kid, who would go berserk if any black person tried to sit next to him on the school bus. I once tried it. (It was the only seat left). He literally whammed my head on the seat metal. He was an intense Muhammad Ali-hater.
To many white Southerners, Ali’s personality, his brashness, his beliefs and his very being was anathematic. Ali epitomized the threat posed by the civil rights movement and by integration – which in the long run was no less than the fear of black accomplishment.
The day after Ali lost to Leon Spinks was a sad day for me. There was the squat kid and a large group of cohorts high-fiving each other, gloating over a bad night for Ali. By then, I knew a friendly girl named Janice who I usually sat next to on the bus. Janice commented, “I don’t care if Ali lost, so long as the champion is black.”
Of course, Janice really did care. She knew, and I knew, there were many black athletes circa those years who were not objects of racial animosity. Athletes, such as OJ Simpson and Arthur Ashe, were humbler or easy-going with the public and were thereby considered the “the right kind” of black athlete, as opposed to Ali. The racist enthusiasm that greeted Ali’s loss proved that he was unlike any other black athlete.
Ali won the title back a few months later. I graduated from Hubert Middle School and left behind the school buses, school yard feuds and sports. I never left behind Ali. I watched his most famous fights on video, and studied him until I understood why he used to be so (for lack of a better word) “divisive.”
During my childhood, Ali was disliked for many of the same reasons that Martin Luther King was still a controversial figure in the South at that time. He was disliked because he wasn’t afraid to not be liked. He was disliked because he inspired a spirit of resistance to oppression. You didn’t have to be a sports fan to know it. He was disliked because he was The Greatest. I remember him today as he is laid to rest in his native St. Louis. My favorite athlete is the late Muhammad Ali. Who else?
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writing fellow with the Center for Community Change.