He came along at a time when people questioned his patriotism. Some questioned his beliefs and religion. There was a time in this country that some Americans refused to call him by his chosen name. Through it all, one fact must be noted about the greatest of all time. Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) was a man for all seasons. At one time he was the most recognizable man in America and the world. To young black men, like myself and to many of different color, he stood for and said what we were thinking during that era. “Muhammad Ali shook up the world, and we are all better for it,” said President Barack Obama.
He was a boxing legend that showed time and time again, how to win against impossible odds. Fans were amazed at his remarkable skills. “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Rumble young man Rumble,” he’d say in concert with his assistant trainer Drew Bundini Brown. He showed the sport how to market it and his fights. He angered white America, who were not use to seeing a black person so self-assured and articulate. I remember him telling the story about an old white lady who’d attended every one of his fights up to that point. He found a way to stop by her seat. He asked her why and her answer made him pause for a minute. I don’t want to miss the fight in which you lose, she said. That’s a small sampling of the hatred many people had for this man. Surprisingly some of the hatred came from older conservative black people.
One has to understand the mood of the country and specifically most black households at the time. The sixties decade was a turbulent one. Most city neighborhoods were broken down by ethnic groups. Lack of professional opportunities was a problem for people of color. Housing and substandard schooling were also an issue. Most found their higher goals and aspirations blocked by many in society. According to unwritten rules, you as a youngster were not supposed to rock the boat. In fact, no matter what color or origin you happen to be, you were to accept societal rules as they were and not ask questions.
Blacks were expected to perform in manual labor positions. Most older and conservative black people were timid in their mannerism toward white people. Again, don’t rock the boat. They just tried to get along and rarely did anything that would improve greater knowledge or status in life. Older black people who had migrated from the southern states (the forties & fifties) saw those positions as progress over farming and sharecropping. And in fact, some were an improvement. So they joined the work professions that were available to them, like maids, janitor, car repair, or factory worker. Most became complacent and thankful for the little bit they were allowed to achieve. Even so, some white ethnic groups didn’t want to see black folks in what was considered good factory jobs in most northern cities.
You didn’t see black people working in offices or wearing a suit and tie to work. Oh, there was black doctors and lawyers, but they were the exception and not the norm. And you can bet in most cases they serviced other black people. Younger blacks were not satisfied with the status quo. We wanted a chance at higher education which we knew would result in an improvement in our American financial status. Young blacks wanted a part of the American Dream, i.e. house with a white picket fence.
Cassius Clay changed his named and adopted the Muslim faith. Actors had and continued to change their names every day. Most whites reacted to his name change to Muhammad Ali with disdain and hatred. And when he refused to become a soldier the anger intensified. At twenty-two years old, in the middle of an outstanding boxing career, he stood up for his beliefs. It was unheard of for a black man to stand up to authority. He took the full weight of the legal profession decision for refusing to fight in Viet Nam. By then, others had joined the Civil Rights fight for lifestyle improvement for all people of color.
The Sixties also gave us the hippy movement which was a virtual love in regardless of race. Students, mostly white, demonstrating against the Viet Nam War. The music, Rock and Roll and especially Rhythm and Blues were attractive to most people. Ironically music was bringing people together more so than any federal or state legislation. Blacks from that era remember and appreciate a time they saw, participated, found love and conquered their self-doubt because of people like Ali. We saw the struggle of others who looked like us. We felt the disappointments and did our parts to bring about the change in spite of those who thought we should remain complacent. That is when black people began to understand they were no less talented or smarter than anybody. Under the surface, we always knew it but failed to act upon that belief. Ali and countless others in civil rights showed no fear and laid the foundation for change. We as people, who had the same attitudes took on the challenge. We began to climb the social ladder throughout the United States.
We look around at the landscape today, and there are no heroes with the same type of magnetism and self-worth of Ali. For that matter, There are few with the same goals or devotion to a public cause as those from the Sixties decade. There are spurts now and then from some like Black Lives Matter (BLM), but there is a lack of support from the black masses who should be supporting BLM.
Oh, there is a lot of bravadoes. Not a day goes by you don’t hear someone talking about, rapping about, or writing about how great they are in all fields of life. Today our young folks, including some thirty and forty-something black men look to people like Snoop Dog, Kanye West, and Jay-Z to “tell it like it is.” The problem is that these folks are only talking about one aspect of Urban American life. They have gotten rich talking about their life in the hood. They have yet to contribute in meaningful ways that benefit those who are still in the hood. If anything most continue saying the things that will keep their fans poor and in the hood.
All is not lost for those who see through the entertainment of Rappers, and people of that mentality. There are people who look like them they can aspire to imitate. President Obama is the obvious example along with several others. Also, there are numerous books, articles, and films about countless individuals with high moral values. You can find people of color and whites who had and have the will and courage we need to succeed as a society. The internet, a tool of immense value to knowledge is waiting for anyone who wants access. To remain uniformed is not an option for people of color.
For me, I am truly a man from the Sixties Era. Sadly for many Americans of Color, I don’t know if there will ever again be such a significant era that produced so many people who stood for something other than themselves. There are ways and mannerism I have today that make people wonder about me. They are human and racial qualities I’ve exhibited during my working career and today that reveal the era from which I came. I share these beliefs and ideas with others who were young in the sixties. It is a feeling of being comfortable in my skin. Knowing that I am who I am because of people like my family and Ali. Back then there were numerous individuals who said the things we as black people thought in song, by interview, or in general. They justified my non-conformist attitude. I learned the best way to change the system was to do it from the inside. At the same time, countless others are pushing from the outside. Muhammad Ali was one of my heroes. Upon learning of his death, my first thought was not of his boxing career. I thought of the man. He is one of a few men; I’ve never met, yet shed tears for after hearing of his death. RIP Champ, American Black Man and World Citizen.
Peace, make it a day in which Jesus Christ would be proud of you,
Codis Hampton II
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