The Defeat of the Great Black Hope

The Defeat of the Great Black Hope


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes




After [Ali] became champion in 1964, the World’s Boxing Association,

largely an honorary agency with little power, stripped him

of his title because of his adoption of the Black Muslim faith.




The Defeat of the Great Black Hope

 By Maurice R. Berube


Boulton Demas is a black 31-year-old lecturer in political science, originally from Trinidad, who, until recently, had never seen a live prizefight. In fact, Boulton Demas not only can’t distinguish between a right hand lead and a right cross but he dislikes boxing. Yet he was one of 19,500 ticket-holders at Madison Square Garden when Muhammad Ali was beaten. For Boulton Demas, Muhammad Ali (also known as Cassius Clay) was the Great Black Hope.

The transformation of Boulton Demas was by no means instant. Originally a conservative political scientist, nonetheless, gradually became an admirer of Malcolm X, the prophet of blackness. Boulton Demas recalls ignoring Malcolm X on Harlem street corners when Malcolm was alive and preaching black power to few followers. Neither did he take an interest in Clay’s defeating Sonny Liston in 1964; nor was he impressed that Clay, Malcolm X’s prime disciple; the next day announced his conversion to the Black Muslim faith. Since that time, black power has come into its own, touching the lives of every black and Malcolm has been unofficially canonized as a black saint.

For Boulton Demas, Muhammad Ali is a folk hero, one of the first truly black men to challenge America in black terms. There was none like him in his chosen profession, or in other professions for that matter. He was not the humble Negro champion like Joe Louis, the good champion who knew his place, “a credit to his race,” whom whites could tolerate. 

He was not the bad, thug-like champion like ex-convict Sonny Liston, whom whites still accept because Liston conformed to their stereotypical nightmare of the bad nigger, the juvenile delinquent grown up.

He was not the “known-white” champion, Jack Johnson, who terrified whites by seeking white prerogatives, by marrying a white girl, and who first inspired the racist demand for a Great White Hope to beat him.

There is nothing white about Muhammad Ali. He preached blackness through the vehicle of his religion. He is neither humble nor socially amoral. He is a complex, brilliant young man, who rewrote the scenario on his terms. Ali consciously cultivated a black image.

Prior to the Bonvena fight, for example, he invited a class of black schoolchildren from Harlem to watch him train; prior to the Frazier fight the only television show he appeared on was Flip Wilson’s, the black comedian; he insisted that white reporters sit in the back of his car and black up front.

And, of course, white America reacted. After he became champion in 1964, the World’s Boxing Association, largely an honorary agency with little power, stripped him of his title because of his adoption of the Black Muslim faith.  And when he refused to be drafted into the Army in 1967, opposing the war in Vietnam, every state boxing commission took away his title and his right to box because his act was “detrimental to boxing.” Ali’s refusal to serve cost him dearly; after nearly four years of inactivity he was nearly bankrupt from his legal appeals to avoid a five-year jail sentence. Late last year, a federal court ruled that New York State must permit Ali to box. 

He had won the right to fight again only to have to recoup his millions in a precious short time before a Supreme Court can rule on his draft appeal.

Although many lawyers feel that he has a strong possibility of winning his case, Ali could not take a chance.

And so, Muhammad Ali, after a long layoff from boxing, exiled during his best fighting years, was forced to fight the three top heavyweight fighters within a ridiculously short period of five months. White America wanted to see him beaten.Even the most unimpeachable sources were infected. Ring magazine, more definitive in its “professional” judgments than any boxing commission, faltered. Ring refused to award Ali its 1970 Fighter of the Year award (giving it to Frazier) because they felt that “. . . the winner should be a model for the Growing American Boy, that his public relation be immaculate. . . .”

And, of course, Ring concluded that “certainly Cassius was no example for the American youth to follow.” Ring provided the basis for its ad hominem, reasoning: “Cassius Clay would have been the ideal example of a professional fighter if he had not refused to sing out ‘God Bless America’.”

The draft refusal was but an extension of Ali’s blackness. The New York Daily News, which kept up a frenetic campaign against Ali, best explained the reaction of the silent majority to the Great Black Hope. Columnist Dick Young observed of white haters of Ali that: “It is the Muslim mask of Muhammad Ali that they want beaten in. That is, what they fear. That is what they resent, really, that and his refusal to serve in the armed forces. They are the whites of the middle generations, those who served in wars gone past and those with sons or nephews in this one. They are the whites who think with hate in their hearts and who root for Joe Frazier to do this thing for them. . . .” Even Frazier’s manager, Yank Durham, “didn’t like what he [Ali] stood for.”

Although Joe Frazier is also black, his social vision is severely limited. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference picketed Frazier in Philadelphia for refusing to grant SCLC the franchise rights to show the bout in the black ghettos, proceeds to help fight poverty. And CORE, praising Ali as a black model, was unsuccessful in its attempt to persuade Frazier to disavow the white racists who saw him as the means to defeat the Great Black Hope. “I stand up for the black man,” Frazier apologized. “But the most important thing, I stand up for Joe Frazier. That’s where it all begins, each man standing up for himself and looking for his family.” 

Ali, on the other hand, felt he represented a “cause” of millions of black people. “Muhammad Ali,” Eldridge Cleaver wrote in Soul on Ice, “is the first ‘free’ black champion ever to confront white America. In the context of boxing, he is a genuine revolutionary, the black Fidel Castro of boxing . . . [He] marks the victory of a New World over and Old World, of Life and light over Lazarus and the darkness of the grave.”

The Frazier fight closed out the myth. White America had won. “The whites paid [the big prices] to see Ali get his lumps,” Dick Young of the Daily News wrote, “and they saw it.” Joe Frazier viciously pounded a no longer fleetfooted boxer in thirteen of fifteen rounds, and most of the ringside celebrities applauded the “comeuppance.”

“He deserved it,” said one international film star. There were few sympathizers near the ring. One could spot the consternation on a few liberal writers like Pete Hamill, Budd Schulberg, and George Plimpton. But most ringsiders seemed satisfied.

Only Ali’s trainer and friend, Bundini Brown, wept on Ali’s shoulder.

One cannot write dispassionately of Muhammad Ali. His beliefs won him white liberal and radical sympathizers, whereas his cruel skill in his prime endeared him to fight fans who liked their boxing in the classical style. There were few movie house patrons who cheered him on in the first Liston fight; by the time the Great Black Hope returned and confronted Jerry Quarry, however, his black and white movie house fans were fanatically screaming for their hero. Ali’s three-and-a-half years in exile were mostly spent on college campuses annexing a new white constituency; and it cost him his boxing skills. There are no comebacks in boxing.

Most of those who idolized Ali, as well as those who hated him, simply confused politics and religion with a good stiff jab. For me, an unrepentant fight buff, Ali at his best was grace and finesse. His victory over the awesome Sonny Liston, whom fight “experts” had called the most indestructible and fearful heavyweight, was a victory of style and intelligence over the irrationality of brute force. It was the victory of the rebel, the seven-to-one underdog, of David over Goliath.

Prizefighting is not a sport but a sadistic ritual. At best it is the most destructive psychic release of hostility short of war. Those who find sport in prizefighting have not boxed much or perhaps not at all. Boxing eventually maims and cripples and even the most extraordinary adept barely escape paying the full price. Yet, once acculturated, the love of boxing dies hard.

A man, however, channels hostility into more constructive pursuits. And, of course, the younger Cassius Clay became the man Muhammad Ali, and fought his best fights outside the ring, in the larger real world. There are two men—Cassius Clay, the boxer, and Muhammad Ali, the Great Black Hope. I respect the black rebel, but it was the skilful fighter who fascinated me most.

But, even, in defeat Ali was a symbol. Her became an anachronism, belonging to a recent past America wants to forget. Ali was the 1960s, strident, militant, black, anti-war, social—and overreaching. We may not see his like again for some time.

Source: Commonweal  (26 March 1971)

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My Life and Battles

By Jack Johnson

African American historian Gerald Early refers to Jack Johnson (1878–1946), the first African American heavyweight champion of the world, as “the first African-American pop culture icon.” Johnson is a seminal and iconic figure in the history of race and sport in America. My Life and Battles is the translation of a memoir by Johnson that was published in French, has never before been translated, and is virtually unknown.

It covers Johnson’s colorful life, both inside and outside the ring, up to and including his famous defeat of Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, in one of the iconic ring battles of the early twentieth century. In addition to the fights themselves the memoir recounts, among many other things, Johnson’s brief and amusing career as a local politician and provides portraits of some of the most famous boxers of the 1900–1915 era.

Johnson comments explicitly on race and “the color line” in boxing and in American society at large in ways that he probably would not have in a publication destined for an American reading public. The text constitutes genuinely new, previously unavailable material and will be of great interest for the many readers intrigued by Jack Johnson.

In addition to providing information about Johnson’s life, it is a fascinating exercise in self-mythologizing that provides substantial insights into how Johnson perceived himself and wished to be perceived by others. Johnson’s personal voice comes through clearly—brash, clever, theatrical, and invariably charming. The memoir makes it easy to see how and why Johnson served as an important role model for Muhammad Ali and why so many have compared the two. With a foreword by Geoffrey C. Ward.  Translated from the French by Christopher Rivers

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Ward (A First-Class Temperament) depicts the fear and resentment Johnson spurred in white Americans in voluminous detail that may startle modern readers in its frankness. Contemporary journalists regularly referred to Johnson as a “nigger” and openly advocated his pummeling at white hands, though ample quotations from supporters in the Negro press balance the perspective.

Ward first documents the obstacles the boxing world threw in Johnson’s path (including prolonged refusals by top white boxers to fight against him), and then probes the government’s prosecution of the champ under the Mann Act (which banned the interstate transport of females for “immoral purposes”) for taking his girlfriends across state lines. Ward brings his award-winning biographical skills to this sympathetic portrayal, which practically bursts with his research—at times almost every page has its own footnote. Though the narrative drags slightly in Johnson’s declining years, the champion’s stubborn, uncompromising personality never lets up. Even readers who don’t consider this a knockout will concede Ward a victory on points. Photos— Publishers Weekly

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By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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Related files:  The Defeat of the Great Black Hope  Clines Reflects on Clemente, Stargell, and the Team of Color     Unforgivable Blackness     Dick Tiger  Pediatrician Eliseo Rosario Dreams Like Roberto Clemente   

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