“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I am not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evil must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here.” – Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali’s daughter said that her father’s heart continued to beat for a full half hour despite the fact that all of his other major organs had died and ceased to function.
It has been said there are times when a man’s life at the doorstep of death can pass as a flash right before one’s eyes.
What was Muhammad’s recollections like when he reached that doorstep? Did he once again see himself running through the neighbourhoods of Kinshasa, Zaire (the Congo today), as he trained in preparation for his fight against George Foreman with hundreds of children running right behind him. Every one of them with a big smile on their faces.
Or did he revisit the 14th round of the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ encounter with his old and ultimately beloved nemesis “Smokin” Joe Frazier. He told everyone then that he was done, and that fight brought him to the closet point to dying he had ever been. Frazier’s corner conceded the bout by throwing in the towel despite Joe’s fruitless opposition to doing so.
Did Muhammad recall the interview with his biographer Thomas Hauser when he told him “Frazier quit just before I did. I don’t think that I could fight anymore.”
But even now with his heart still beating, the heart of a champion; he was still fighting and perhaps still remembering that life. That sweet life.
Would he have seen his mother always lovingly adoring him? Gazing upon him with those eyes that said with immense pride: “Look what God has wrought.”
Would he have recalled that first of two trips to Bermuda during the early Sixties when the preter-handsome, charismatic and newly minted Heavyweight champion of the world Cassius Clay met a young teen at DA’s Cocktail Bar owned by non-other than DA Brown, the father of the future Premier, who in his own way would go on at Howard University to become a civil rights activist like Clay. Would Clay have noticed how the teenager, no more than 15 or so, marvelled at the size of his hands? Dr Ewart Brown, still today would say with the same look of marvel on his face that they were huge.
Or would he remember his visit to the Forty Thieves club on Front Street, were ladies’ man Cassius would meet a musician named Rudolph Commissiong as they found themselves only feet away from each other at the club’s bar.
It was Cassius Clay then for most people – what he would later call his slave name – as he was still in the process of transitioning to his new identity and name Muhammad Ali. He would fight for this new name and identity in the public arena as fiercely as he fought an opponent in the ring.
And what of the legendary Bermudian impresario and promoter Olive Trott who brought the young phenom to Bermuda ? She was one of the few persons alive who had the type of charisma and toughness that would rival his own. Would he remember her too and that beautiful Bermuda day when hundreds turned out at the Tennis Stadium to see the boxing exhibition that would feature him and more importantly to see the next Black hope.
No one then I am sure, neither here or in the United States, could envisage then that the young brash and irresistible fighter would also be a leader for racial and social justice just as important to us in the African diaspora as Malcolm X, Stokely Charmichael, Michael Manly, Eric Williams, Kwame Nkrumah, and so many other world leaders.
Would Ali once again think of Malcolm who “pound-for-pound”, had as much raw personality and commitment to his people as he? Would he still question in those few minutes remaining to him as to whether – as he sometimes stated – he did enough to assist Malcolm during his time of need and greatest danger?
Did Muhammad replay that day after representing the United States in the Olympics he would return home to Louisville Kentucky and back to the racist “Jim Crow” South where white supremacy not only reigned, but was flaunted with terrible consequences for Black people, only to be told as an Olympic gold medal champion that he and a friend could not be served at a “whites only” segregated restaurant in the city centre.
Muhammad to his dying day insisted that resulted in him throwing his gold medal in to the nearby Ohio river, part of the dividing line between the North and South. But Ali would go on to know and understand that white supremacy was a worldwide phenomenon that relegated people of colour like him and Olive, like my father, and DA Brown to a second class status or worse.
He was lucky, because for decades before “uppity” Negros such as himself would have been lynched for defying the white dominated social order. Would he have recalled then on his death bed the stories he heard as a boy, of soldiers coming home from the war and being beaten and even killed for simply sporting their uniforms? Did he have a relative who had met such a fate? His mother’s grandfather or his father’s second cousin on his father’s side? Many did.
By Rolfe Commissiong
*Elected in 2012, Rolfe Commissiong is the current PLP Member of Parliament for Constituency 21 – Pembroke South East.