ALI v. FRAZIER I

In early 1971 the world was getting ready for Ali v. Frazier I, which was scheduled to take place at Madison Square Garden on March 8. At the time I was a 12-year old white boy who had fallen in love with Muhammad Ali from the moment I first set eyes on him. He was this physically beautiful, supremely talented human being who moved with grace, breathtaking speed and elegance. As he said, he “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.” He was brash and arrogant and confident, and he had the goods to back it up. He first came on my radar around the time of Ali v. Liston II in 1965. Ali laid out Liston in the first round and stood over him yelling, “get up sucka!” To me, he looked like superman.

On April 28, 1967, Ali, then the heavyweight champion of the world, refused induction into the U.S. Army citing religious convictions. He was immediately stripped of his title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He immediately appealed, but for three years no state boxing commission would grant him a temporary license to fight. I was crushed. I had long talks with my father about what was happening. He explained to me that under the law, Ali was claiming to be a conscientious objector. Together we researched the history of that position. What we learned was that during World War I and World War II, members of certain Christian denominations objected to those wars. They included Quakers, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren and Seventh Day Adventists.

The laws pertaining to conscientious objectors had been adopted in the United States during World War II. Given this history, I was confused as to why Ali was being treated so harshly. I told my Dad, who was a World War II Navy veteran, that I thought that Ali was being screwed because he was Black and a Muslim. My father agreed with me.

Ultimately, on June 28, 1971, the United States Supreme Court issued an 8–0 decision vindicating Ali. Thurgood Marshall recused himself because of his prior involvement with the case as a U.S. Department of Justice official. The Court held that the conviction had to be reversed because the Appellate Board of the Selective Service System gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to Ali. In the end, Ali had been wrongfully denied the right to box for three years. Of course, in many ways the ruling did not matter. Ali had been robbed of his prime, and to this day certain people still wrongfully refer to Ali as a draft dodger. Interestingly, the elusive boxer who was so good at dodging punches did not, in fact, dodge the draft. He stood firm and relied on the laws of this land.

Ali v. Frazier I took place while I was in the seventh grade. In 1960, my family had moved into a small and rather unique school district in Greenburgh, New York, which is located about 40 minutes north of New York City. The district was diverse in every way imaginable. Culturally, religiously, economically, racially, etc., we had it all. The district had adopted the “Princeton Plan” which eliminated the use of geographic district lines to assign students to schools and instead put kids of the same age together. This created age-balanced groups that had to physically change schools often. So, during my tenure in the school district from kindergarten through high school graduation I attended six different schools. What this meant was that regardless of where we lived within the District, we were all bused or walked to the same schools. Black, white, whatever, we were always together, and we were just us. It was this amazing rainbow of people in our own little bubble, and because we started out so young together and it was all we knew, and because many of us (particularly the white kids) had not yet been confronted by the world, we thought everything was cool.

There was a somewhat smaller district that neighbored our own. Although economically diverse, it was much more racially homogenous. That is, it was virtually all white. In 1968 there was a vote to merge the two districts because of economies of scale. The vote was based upon the total number of yes votes cast across the two districts. The proposal passed although, truth be told, the citizenry of the other district actually cast more no votes. The high school for the newly merged districts would be the facility from my original district (you know, the one with the diverse student body). That first Fall after the merger some white kids from the other district wrote “N**gers Go Home” on the exterior of their new high school. There was some rioting at the high school. Sadly, white flight began to set in and ensued over the coming decades. Those of us who had grown up together in our district were confused. We were young, and particularly us white kids who had been in our district for years didn’t understand the fear and hatred. These were my friends, and some just happened to have skin with a different pigmentation than mine. From the perspective of a fourth grader, it just seemed stupid.

It was against this backdrop that Ali v. Frazier I approached two years later. The storm which had engulfed the high school at the time of the merger had not, as yet, filtered down to us. We were just kids going to school. I began to make some friends with the kids from the other district, however, I generally hung with my kindergarten crew (57 years later I still hang with them). It was during the pre-fight build-up that I began to notice something. There was a definite dividing line. Most of the kids from my old district, black or white, wanted Ali to win, while most of the other kids wanted Frazier. Things began to heat up. It wasn’t a good-natured rivalry like between Yankees fans and Mets fans, or Giants fans and Jets fans. There was a definite edge to it. The Frazier fans were calling Ali a loud-mouthed N**ger and draft dodger. I found it very disturbing.

Certain white people were threatened by Ali, and the kids who were vehemently opposed to him seemed by and large to come from families from the other, homogenous district where a majority of the voters had opposed the merger. This Country has a long history of tacitly accepting people of color who entertain, perform, play sports, etc. For example, there was a time in the 20th Century when the most famous person in the world was, arguably, Louis Armstrong. He was welcomed all over the world as royalty. Back home, however, he could play in Washington, D.C., but because of the color of his skin he could not stay in its hotels. Hollywood shot movies with the incredible songbird Ella Fitzgerald, but her scenes were standalone so that they could be easily omitted when the films were shown in the South. Joe Louis, The Brown Bomber“, particularly comes to mind in this context. He was safe, entertained, fell in line, and died a penniless broken shell of himself.

The pending Ali v. Frazier fight presented not only a contrast in boxing styles, but also in philosophies and mannerisms. Frazier, although a tremendous fighter who presented like a relentless tank that just kept coming at you, was safe. He entertained, but did not shake the status quo. Ali, on the other hand, had a style in the ring that had not been previously seen in the heavyweight ranks. He danced, glided and circled. It was poetry in motion. Outside the ring he was brash, provocative and cocky. That would have been enough to make some people uncomfortable, but he went further. He cast off the name Cassius Clay, his “slave name” as he called it, and converted to Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. He spoke with passion and pride, and would not play the “good old boy” for anyone. If that was not bad enough, he then had the audacity to refuse induction into the military based upon his religious principles. He certainly wasn’t the first person to do this. Indeed, as to the Vietnam War, you had white kids going off to Canada, while others took advantage of the college deferment. Compared to them, Ali took it on front and center, and paid the price. It would seem that his only crime was that he was a black man who stood up instead of falling in line, and that is why he scared the sh*t out of some white people. If he could do it, others might follow him and folks couldn’t handle that.

In certain ways like many kids my age I was a veteran of the 60’s. I may have been only marginally affected by the assassination of JKF in 1963, but the killings of MLK and RFK six years later had been tangible experiences which had a profound combined impact on me. There was the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, etc., and I grew up in a family where broad discussions at the dinner table were encouraged. I may have been only 12, but I was aware that lines had been drawn in our society, and I understood where I was comfortable and what was important to me. In a nutshell, I had learned that people are people. I had heard my elementary school teachers refer to America as this great melting pot where anyone could come and seek a better future. I had sung the words, “with brotherhood from sea to shining sea” while standing next to my brothers and sisters of every color. We had played together, fought together (as all kids do), eaten in each other’s home, had sleep overs, etc. I had learned that while our skin may have different shades, people were to be judged not by their color but by the “content of their character.” I had drank the healthy Kool Aid that my community had poured for us.

On March 8, 1971, Frazier won the match. I was devastated by the outcome, and I had changed. Yes, I was only in seventh grade, but I had begun to see the world outside of our little bubble. It was not a pretty picture, and I began to get angry. I was angry at the way the world looked at and interacted with my brothers and sisters. When I was in high school, I had white friends from neighboring homogenous school districts ask me why I didn’t ask my parents to move or to allow me to attend another district. I would defiantly reply, “I’m from Greenburgh.” One of the neighboring districts actually banned our fans from attending a basketball game at their school. I just saw it all as insanity and the antithesis of what this Country holds itself out to be.

I am now three months shy of my 62nd birthday. My position on racism was informed by the family in which I was raised and the school district I attended. Recently, because of certain responses to some of my posts on social media, I’ve had to make conscious choices about who I consider my family and friends. I am comfortable with who I am and my choices. My family includes my brothers and sisters from Greenburgh. We are in constant contact and see one another often. They are lawyers and accountants and chefs and nurses and teachers and doctors and everything else, and they are amazing human beings whom I love dearly. Over the years, they have had horrible things happen to the them just because of the color of their skin, things that would never happen to me. I remain angry and incensed on their behalf, and I have evolved into an anti-racist.

For many, Ali v. Frazier I was just a boxing match. For me, it was a watershed moment that opened my eyes and set me on a course. My eyes remain open, and I still don’t like what I see.

Not your average lawyer

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Charlie Norris

Charlie Norris

Not your average lawyer

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