Ali courted danger from those not ready for his bold thinking

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Malcolm X, who was killed in February 1965 in New York, was the man credited with recruiting Ali to the Nation of Islam. | AP

Back when I was a teenager and a young man, I fully expected Muhammad Ali to be killed. Not in a plane crash and certainly not in the ring.

No, I expected — or maybe the phrase I should use is ‘‘wouldn’t have been shocked by’’ or ‘‘thought it highly possible’’ — that he would be assassinated.

That’s how we got rid of troublesome folks back when I was young.

When I was a freshly graduated eighth-grader in 1963, civil-rights leader Medgar Evers was shot and killed in Jackson, Mississippi. A couple of months into my first year of high school, President John F. Kennedy was killed. Four and a half years after that, his brother Bobby was shot down.

Two months before Bobby Kennedy was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. That was April 4, 1968. I was 19.

Twenty months after that, on Dec. 4, 1969, just after I had finished my junior football season at Northwestern, Black Panthers leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were killed by Chicago police while they were sleeping. I was 20, just a few months younger than Hampton, 21. Clark, from my hometown of Peoria, was 22.

There were many more ‘‘fix the problem’’ killings on into the 1980s: Malcolm X, the man who had recruited Ali to join the Nation of Islam; students at Kent State and Jackson State; now-forgotten civil-rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney; and John Lennon. There was also the near-murder of President Ronald Reagan.

There were even ‘‘bad guys’’ targeted, such as presidential candidate and career racist George Wallace — ‘‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’’ — and Hustler magazine owner Larry Flynt. Both were crippled by would-be killers’ bullets.

That’s how ‘‘problems’’ were fixed back then. No, murder hasn’t gone away. Nor was it ever new. But it seemed as though a vapor of reprisal was there for all who dared rock the boat, be it through social disturbance or edgy thinking.

And Ali was rocking it hard. The sea he was riding on had two elements to its foamy surface: racial division and the Vietnam War. Unless you are old enough to have been a near-adult while Ali was winning his Olympic gold medal in 1960, then beating all pro comers and finally becoming a Muslin radical, war rejecter and angry black vocalist, you can’t truly know what the stakes were for him or the danger he tempted.

I, like many in the white world, saw him first as an exciting athlete and second as a preening narcissist who broke every rule of good sportsmanship with his bragging, taunting and, yes, racist humiliations of other black foes. Ali turned dignity and solemn grace into something like a clown-dominated minstrel show.

Indeed, his screeching and breathless carrying-on about being the ‘‘greatest of all time’’ in amazed self-aggrandizement after victories was racial stereotype taken to the nth degree. Greatest? Really? In a world where African Americans were kept from almost any form of self-actualization?

But he was Cassius Clay then, descendant of slaves, something of which he would become increasingly conscious. His famous comment that, ‘‘No Viet Cong ever called me [the N-word],’’ had more scalpel-like meaning to it than pages of doctrine.

Ali threw off his old self, like a butterfly breaking from its cocoon, when he buried his ‘‘slave name’’ and became a Muslim, a religion never dominated by white people.

I often wondered whether he thought he might get killed for his beliefs. And I knew the Vietnam War was one like we never would have again. Unless you’ve lived with a draft card in your wallet, the draft isn’t describable to those who only know volunteer wars that seem like news footage from afar.

Every draft-age male in America had a stake in Ali’s 1967 refusal to go to war. I sure did. I was 18 at the time. And the fact was, no Viet Cong had called me or anybody I knew anything.

The difference with Ali as a symbol was that everybody knew deep inside he was a decent, funny, thoughtful fellow whose surface craziness was an act. Being sentenced to prison for five years and being forced to give up the one thing in life you dominated? That was sacrifice.

Yet Ali was vilified and hated back then by all establishment types — for a reason. He was dangerous to the establishment. Just ask paranoid and dirty FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

But his decency won out. People always smiled around Ali, even — maybe especially — after he turned to stone from Parkinson’s syndrome that at least partially was brought on by his participation in his brutal sport.

‘‘Ali was nourished by people,’’ photographer Peter Angelo Simon writes in a new book of Ali photos.

Ali was daring, vain, intelligent, fearless and foolish enough to believe he could change the world. Those people are the only kind who ever do.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.


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