Noted sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards first met Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, during his freshman year at San Jose State in 1960. Dr. Edwards joined The Jim Rome Show on Monday to talk about his late friend and how the legendary and outspoken African-American boxer was viewed with round condemnation in society during his prime because he wasn’t your typical athlete, falling in line with the thought that an athlete should be “seen and not heard.”
“Even within black society many people turned on Muhammad Ali when he changed his name and joined the Nation of Islam. They could not wrap their minds around why he would not go along to get along, especially with so much money at stake,” Dr. Edwards said. “And of course, the mainstream of American society flat out condemned him, villainized him, and that proceeded really for years.
“To this day, there are those who quote, ‘have not forgiven Ali for some of the statements that he made most certainly for not standing up and stepping forward in terms of the military draft,’ although he had every right to be a conscious objector under his religion and the laws of the United States.”
Edwards talked about how the three-time heavyweight champion became the model of the activist athlete.
“I think it came from one, his own spirit, his own iconic classic spirit. I mean, he was outspoken and breaking the mold before he became a member of the Nation of Islam. I mean, they called him the ‘Louisville Lip’,” Dr. Edwards said. “When he was [at San Jose State] working out for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Julie [Menendez] couldn’t shut him up. He was already iconic, classic in terms of the historic and traditionally established mold of the black athlete, be seen but not heard.
“After he joined the Nation of Islam and under the tutelage of Malcom X, he not only continued to be outspoken, but his outspokenness had a broader substance and relevance to it. So the basic inclination, the basic iconic, classic norm-breaking inclination was already there, but what the Nation of Islam did, what Malcom X did, was to bring a broader relevance and substance to that inclination and that is what we came ultimately to see expressed by Muhammad Ali.”
When Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army, citing religious reasons against fighting in the Vietnam War, the noted scholar, Dr. Edwards, said it took precedent in terms of an athlete taking a stand in something he believed in and has had a lasting impact.
“In terms of athlete, black athlete, political activism from that day forward, we see it today, in athletes running on the field for the St. Louis Rams in the ‘hands up don’t shoot gesture,’ we saw it with LeBron James and D. Wade in the hoodie demonstration, we even saw it when a group of athletes on several teams in the NBA, they would not play against the [Los Angeles] Clippers in the wake of some comments, some unfortunate comments by the former owner [Donald Sterling].
Dr. Edwards continued, “We see it in so many ways. The University of Missouri team siding with the students on campus over issues of race and so forth. All of that goes right back to Muhammad Ali. He was the godfather, he was the model of that, established the political disposition and activism of the modern black athlete in America.”
Edwards says Ali, who has gone from vilified to beloved by society, legacy, has been belittled like other true generational difference makers.
“Ali most certainly did not change. He was consistent in both his convictions and principles as well in his humanities. As he grew older, the mainstream of American society, in particular, tended to box him and frame him in a way that was acceptable,” Dr. Edwards said. “You see it with almost any outstanding African-American personalities in American society. Doctor King in so many ways has been reduced to ‘I have a dream’ because that way he can be praised and embraced in the mainstream. Malcolm X has been reduced to ‘freedom by any means necessary,’ that way he can continue to be vilified and rejected in the mainstream.
“I’m awfully afraid that Ali is being reduced to ‘float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,’ and ‘the Greatest’ and so forth, and that’s unfortunate. Because as he grew older, that came to be the scope and impact of his relevance he became more acceptable but at tremendous cost. So I think the terms are trying to maintain the true and valid legacy of Muhammad Ali and what he meant to American society and to black people in particular.”
Dr. Edwards says ‘The Greatest’ moniker associated with Ali, doesn’t scratch the surface of his true lasting legacy.
“The Greatest compared to what? Compared to who? I mean that doesn’t begin to encapsulate or encapture the breath and spoke of his significance and relevance,” Dr. Edwards said. “I mean, this is a man who stood like a colossus over the last four decades of the 20th century and literally was a transformative figure. He redefined not just what it mean to be an African-American athlete, but what it meant to be an American in a represented democracy. And for that, we need to standup and pay attention and try to understand how much of an impact he had on all of us.”