How Muhammad Ali turned black anger into civic sainthood

Lost in the haze of praise for “The Greatest” is how this butterfly — “pretty” as any person before or after him — stung like a bee not just in the boxing ring but particularly outside it.

Muhammad Ali, whose funeral is Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, was the rarest of black men because his unapologetic anger was forgiven over the course of a beloved life. The arc of his anger and the world’s embrace of it marked an epochal change in society -- something else Ali managed to teach us as we take the measure of his legend following his death on June 3 at age 74.

Ali angrily rejected the role expected of a black man in American society – non-threatening and passive. How does such a black man become deeply beloved in a culture that so often criminalizes, consciously and unconsciously, the first signs of aggression in black boys and men? This is not a typical transformation in America. White male anger can be the stuff of presidential campaigns. But black male anger gets suppressed. What distinguished Ali?

Sure, Ali’s activism followed the bold examples of earlier black athletes, such as Jack Johnson, Althea Gibson and Jesse Owens. He shared his era with Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Arthur Ashe. But prize fighters aim to hurt you. Ali beat people up. To be the heavyweight champion of the world and to be black meant carrying the rage and the hope of an oppressed people into symbolic battle. To do it angry, many people feared, could put Ali — and all black people — at risk of the wrath of American whites.

In 1967, after Ali returned to the ring and became heavyweight champion, Jackie Robinson compared him to other champs. “One thing is certain,” Robinson said. “He is the most hated. He is hated because he is a Muslim. He is also hated because he speaks his mind.”

Understanding why Ali became so beloved is easier than knowing how it could happen. For one, Ali was not only “pretty,” as he often reminded us. He was also pretty funny.

He saved his most serious verbal fearsomeness for his opponents in the ring. To the public he loved, he supplied an arresting charm and hilarity. It may have been cruel for a black man to publicly call another black man a “big ugly bear.” When Ali did, it was also as hilarious as a game of dozens.

When Ali said that a win over him by white boxer Chuck Wepner would make Wepner “America’s greatest hero” and put him on TV commercials, he was helping Americans laugh at their racism. Only Richard Pryor did it better. And that was his job.

Ali’s intense and very public spirituality was also rare for a non-Christian athlete. While the press routinely ignored his Islamic faith — referring to his religious thank you’s as commercial messages or refusing to call him by his new name — Ali’s resolute repetition of principle became a measure of his sincerity. It gave credibility to his wish for peace long after the Vietnam War ended. As he often said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.”

Occasionally, his rage could be reflective. Before his 1966 match with Brian London in England, Ali opened up about his childhood to a skeptical Gordon Parks. “I used to lay awake scared, thinking about somebody getting cut up or being lynched,” Ali said. “Look like they was always black people I liked. And I always wanted to do something to help those people. But I was too little. Maybe now I can help by living up to what I’m supposed to be.”

Finally, and sadly, there was his rapid physical decline. Ali’s middle age seemed like his late 30s and his old age his 50s -- though his lyrical voice had already become a slurring whisper in his early 40s. At the Olympic torch ceremony in 1996, seeing him move gingerly as if always downhill, that devastating left hand shaking uncontrollably, you could almost see the enormity of his heart.

“Boxing was nothing.” Ali told the journalist Bob Greene in 1983. “It wasn’t important at all. Boxing was just meant as a way to introduce me to the world.” Eventually, he circled the country and the globe, giving talks on universal understanding and the broadest idea of peace. He championed child-abuse prevention, religious tolerance, education and more research for the disease that would transform him, Parkinson’s.

Still, a kind of civic sainthood is almost never bestowed upon angry black men of any age. Ali’s rare combination of athletic greatness, principled sincerity and sympathetic physical transformation may have facilitated his redemption in the eyes of even his greatest detractors. He was allowed to grow beyond his youthful anger, until it could be seen for what it was: a fight for peace.

This quality of transcendence without backing down made him a hero to many black athletes who followed him, the “Greatest of All Time” —“GOAT”— as many have called him. Why have so few of them followed his example when today’s sports superstars may possess more power than Ali had in his prime?

It is tempting to chalk up the difference to Ali’s sublime exceptionalism.

The contradiction was not lost on Ali himself. “We black people could become free sooner than you think,” Ali said in 1970, “if all the athletes and entertainers just took a stand — the famous ballplayers and the rock ‘n’ roll artists, the big ones — took a walk through the ghetto one day and told the white man, ‘We’re with these people and we ain’t going to sell out anymore.’”

Maybe it’s the difference in the eras themselves and the issues facing a broader black public. We’ve been reminded that Ali spoke out during a time of great social change. Yet, history teaches that there’s no such thing as an inconsequential era — it just depends on your position in it.

From the perspective of many African American men, it is hard to distinguish the significance of the 1960s from that of the 1980s, or Hurricane Katrina from the Great Recession, or re-segregation from racial backlash against the first black president.

Certainly, yesterday’s Black Power movement could inform today’s Black Lives Matter protests over police brutality. There is still plenty to be angry about.

Now, Ali is gone, and we are left to the work of turning his legend into a way of life. Ali’s journey was more than a singular path to personhood. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the example of a drum major for justice, Ali lived to exemplify the prizefighter for peace within each of us.

The champ’s daughter Hana Ali described his passing, with the family at his bedside: “All of his organs failed, but his heart wouldn’t stop beating. For 30 minutes, his heart just kept beating.”

How fitting that his heart, as if it knew nothing else, was the last part of his being to leave the fight and enter peace.

(David Dante Troutt is a law professor at Rutgers Law School-Newark, where he is director of the Center on Law in Metropolitan Equity. He is the author of a new book, "The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America.")