Reporter’s Notebook: Moving Muhammad Ali higher with silent protests

The last time I remember a national political conversation like this was in the run-up to the Iraq War. Not since Rosie O’Donnell was on daytime television screaming across a split-screen at Elisabeth Hasselbeck has there been a time when those in my personal circles were this polarized. It seems the president who promised in his victory speech to unite the nation certainly has divisive powers too.

In case you somehow missed the news last week, those divisive abilities were on full display at a rally in Alabama where President Trump went after the silent protests of professional football players taking a knee at games during the singing of the national anthem.

Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—h off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired,'” Trump said.

Patriotic Americans listening and reading his words cheered Trump as he argued that the mostly black athletes who participate in these displays should be fired.

If the story of these black athletes sounds familiar, it should.

In the 1960s and 70s, some very patriotic Americans were cheering the same slurs against another young black American athlete, who was highly-paid and successful, and dared to speak out on the job about the treatment of black Americans. His name was Muhammad Ali.

Many of the president’s supporters today might not like to admit it, but Ali was very much the Colin Kaepernick of the time — an afro-centric athlete who many believed was ungrateful, unworthy, and despised his country.

Ali, too, worked in a sport whose fans were mostly white Americans, and he too nearly lost everything when on principle he refused to enlist during the Vietnam war, arguing that he wasn’t going to fight for a country that refused to defend his rights as a black man living in America.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me n—-r, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

John Rooney/AP Photo
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine, May…

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