How the once polarizing boxing champion became a transcendent icon of harmony.
Bill Cosby was one of the most popular comedians in the nation, but declined the invitation because it was his policy to reject all speaking invitations since he got so many. Mel Brooks, a hot commodity as the writer, director and star of the 1974 hit movie “Blazing Saddles” declined because he was too busy working on a script.
So Harvard University’s senior class of 1975 asked Muhammad Ali to be the guest speaker for the annual Class Day that precedes graduation.
“More people have spoken to me about getting Ali than anyone else,” event chair Harden H. Weidemann told The Harvard Crimson about a month before Ali’s appearance.
The Crimson reported that 1,100 people showed up to hear Ali that day. And Ali’s message to them was about the necessity to embrace love and selflessness.
“Look at the way Jesus Christ treated all those who came to him,” Ali said to those assembled in the Burden Auditorium. “When the great sinners who were condemned and expelled from society, when they were brought to the Master, he raised them up with his compassion. Jesus was on the side of the guilty and accused ones.”
Harvard’s seniors probably weren’t expecting that kind of message. Many probably wanted to hear the boisterous, braggadocio Ali, the outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and convert to the Nation of Islam.
They likely expected the controversial, counter-cultural Ali. But the man who spoke to Harvard’s seniors that day was the ecumenical Ali. He had begun to become the man who would be celebrated by Christians, Muslims, Jews, blacks, whites, Asians, Arabs – people of every stripe and type – as a transcendent cultural icon, unmatched until the day he died.
The Ali who showed up at Harvard in 1975 appreciated the Jesus who sided with the accused because he himself knew something about the painful impact of accusations. In 1967, the young heavyweight champ refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, citing his new conversion to the Nation of Islam as the reason.
Famous Last Stand
The Nation of the 1960s saw the world in stark black-and-white racial tones. White people were “devils” because of slavery, Jim Crow and the race-based colonialism that pock-marked the African and Asian continents. They were separatists and fiercely independent, disavowing a need for White America, running their own businesses from their base on the Southside of Chicago.
After joining the Nation, Ali announced that he was no longer to be called Cassius Clay – his legal name – because it was a “slave” name. Instead, he accepted the name given to him by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader in those days.
Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and refused to go to war.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” he said famously.
In June of 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion. He was stripped of his heavyweight title belt and banned from boxing for three years.
Now labeled an unpatriotic draft dodger and a religious radical, Ali lost some of the shine that came from being an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champ. Mainstream America rejected him. But young Americans across racial and religious lines embraced him as their icon, which led to the Harvard invitation eight years later.
“He was so much more than a fighter as time went on,” said comedian Billy Crystal during his eulogy of Ali last week. “With Bobby Kennedy gone, Martin Luther King gone, Malcolm X gone, who was there to relate to when Vietnam exploded in our face?”
Crystal was a young man himself in the late 1960s, part of a generation who feared being called to fight in a war they didn’t support.
“It was Ali who stood up for us by standing up for himself,” Crystal said.
Crystal and Ali were close friends, though undoubtedly a surprising match. A black Muslim from the South and a white Jew from New York weren’t likely to connect the way they did in the 1970s.
But they both were blessed with the gift of gab and tons of charisma. And Crystal had the added benefit of being an uncanny mimic and impersonator of Ali, which he did to the champ’s delight the first time they met in 1974 at a televised dinner honoring Ali.
But the Ali-Crystal connection ran deeper than that. Ali’s commitment to civil and human rights resonated with Crystal’s own family history, the comedian revealed during his eulogy. His father was known as the “Branch Rickey of jazz” due to his efforts to provide opportunities for black artists. His uncle, Milt Gabler, produced Billie Holiday’s haunting anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit.”
So Crystal was primed for the special friendship he and Ali developed. And he admired the man who called him “Little Brother”, a man he described as “a silent messenger of peace who told us that life is better when you build bridges between people and not walls.”
Ali and Crystal also loved to share a good laugh. He recalled the time that they sat together at the funeral of broadcaster Howard Cossell. Ali, whose verbal sparring matches with Cossell were legendary, leaned over to Crystal.
“Little Brother, do you think he’s wearing his hairpiece?” Ali asked, clearly a reference to Cossell’s corpse in the casket.
“I don’t think so,” Crystal replied.
“Then how will God recognize him?” Ali coyly asked.
Crystal’s reply was equally as coy: God will recognize Cossell the moment he opens his mouth. And then they snickered like kids, Crystal said.
Even Donald Trump?
One year after they met, Ali spoke at Harvard. Later In October, the champ beat Joe Frazier in the fight he billed “The Thrilla in Manila.”
By this time the once-reviled Ali was a beloved global figure. He had left the Nation of Islam, following Warith Dean Muhammad – a son of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad – into the practice of orthodox Islam.
Perhaps he remembered that his former friend Malcolm X had also left the Nation, transforming himself into El Hajj Malik El Shabazz after he made the hajj to Mecca and saw the global rainbow that Islam was – black, white, brown and yellow, an astonishing array of races, ethnicities and nationalities.
Shabazz left the Nation a pariah and was assassinated in 1965, some believe by a man with ties to the Nation. Ali’s departure didn’t seem to generate the same animus. It helped, perhaps, that the Nation was in the throes of major change itself when Ali left.
But the Nation mourned Ali’s death along with the rest of the world, something it did not do when Shabazz was murdered.
“The flesh of Muhammad Ali must return to the earth but what he has done for the Cause of Islam, for the Cause of Freedom, Justice and Equality will never die” said Nation of Islam leader Min. Louis Farrakhan in a published statement. “These are the words that strike me, a life well lived and a job well done. He has finished his course.”
Even Donald Trump, notorious for advocating that Muslims should be banned from entering the U.S., tweeted an Ali tribute.
“Muhammad Ali is dead at 74!” Trump shared with his millions of Twitter followers. “A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all!”
Trump is now at least as polarizing as Ali once was. Maybe he should take a lesson from a man who could garner the respect of presidents, kings, celebrities, millions of fans around the world, transcending race, religion and culture – and a liberal Jewish comedian, a controversial leader of a black Muslim sect, and a presidential candidate believed by many to be an unequivocal bigot.
Trump could learn a lot from the ecumenical Ali.