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Redemption Song: review by Kofi Natambu

By Kofi Natambu, Ishmael Reed’s Konch Magazine, 20 March 2000

This is an extraordinary book. It is especially astonishing because just when I began to despair that any one text could possibly do justice to accurately documenting and analyzing the often badly misunderstood and largely misrepresented complexity of either Muhammad Ali, the African American civil rights and black power movements, or that endlessly fascinating and elusive historical moment known forever as “the sixties,” an heretofore obscure author restores my faith in the illuminating power of great writing to do much more than merely chronicle legendary events. That the author would be a white American expatriate who left the U.S. in 1971 at the age of eighteen to settle in England and become an award-winning sports historian is all the more amazing and, in this particular case, gratifying.

For what Mike Marqusee has accomplished with this elegantly written book is nothing short of providing the most lucid, succinct, intellectually honest and even-handed account I have ever read of what Ali, and the various black political and cultural movements for radical social change both in this country and abroad (especially in Africa) of that volatile period really meant to its massive legions of fans and supporters throughout the world.

But Marqusee doesn’t stop there. His highly insightful and sharply analytical prose, which always somehow manages to remain both graceful and completely devoid of dogma, also incorporates an analysis of the significant social and cultural impact of such archetypal figures of the ’60s era, as well as earlier 20th century American history, as Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, Elijah Muhammad, Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Louis Armstrong, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sam Cooke and Martin Luther King. In doing so we learn how and why these seemingly disparate figures had such a profound effect on the anti-war movement against the American intervention in Vietnam, as well as the on-going struggles for human rights and social revolution in the United States, the African continent, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe.

Toward that end Marqusee ties in the revolutionary movements against colonialism and for political and economic democracy in what was formerly known as the Congo (now Zaire), Ghana, and South Africa. Thus the reader is also treated to an analysis of U.S. complicity (through the CIA and the State Department) in the the military overthrow and assassination of the first and only democratically elected President in the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, in 1960 by none other than the vicious military officer and subsequent dictator Joseph Mobutu (who bankrolled the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ heavyweight championship fight between Ali and George Foreman with state funds in 1974).

In fact it is one of the many engaging aspects of this book that it seriously investigates the many links between individuals like Ali, Malcolm X, Dr. King and Elijah Muhammad within the broader context of such major institutional forces as the Nation of Islam, SCLC, SNCC, the Organization of African Unity (founded by Ghanaian president and Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah), the FBI, the CIA, and the American government. What emerges from this meticulously detailed attention to the intricate nuances of history is a book that tells us precisely who Muhammad Ali was as both boxer and human individual without sacrificing an understanding of how massive political, economic and social forces of the 1960s and ’70s impacted Ali’s perceptions of himself and the world. At the same time Marqusee allows us to see the champion’s considerable strengths and weaknesses in a way that doesn’t dehumanize him through either too much misplaced adulation or petty criticism. In fact the truly heroic dimensions of Ali’s stand against the war in Vietnam and his sincere commitment to his chosen religious and philosophical beliefs at great personal and professional cost is even clearer and more profound after reading this text.

As a result the extended and brilliantly written passages on the champion’s personal and political relationships with such icons of the period as Malcolm X, the major mentor and confidant of Ali’s before the acrimonious split between Malcolm and the authoritarian patriarch of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, in March 1964 (and which helped lead to the tragedy of Malcolm’s assassination just eleven months later) is filled with well-researched and captivating accounts of the complex personalities and stances of all three men. For example, we learn that Ali, who first began secretly attending meetings of the Nation of Islam as early as 1962 (some two years after he received a gold medal as the American representative in boxing at the Olympic Games, and two years before he fought and defeated Sonny Liston in February 1964 for the world heavyweight crown), was already fascinated with the militant black nationalist oratory of Malcolm X (the leading national minister of the NOI) at a time when the Nation was still almost completely unknown to the general American public.

It was Ali’s intense interest in the sect as well as his highly confident and independent attitude that supported Malcolm’s typically prescient insight that a then relatively unknown 20-year-old kid named Cassius Marcellus Clay would very soon become world heavyweight champion. Thus began Malcolm’s recruitment of a young man that he insisted from the beginning was more than capable of becoming a very important force in the organization. That this prophecy was not shared by the then sixty-five-year-old founder and leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, is a major understatement since the old man not only considered boxing to be a morally inferior pastime but the idea of the young Clay as an important member of his organization struck him as pure folly. Of course none of this kept him from fully endorsing and embracing Clay as a leading (and now wealthy) member once he did become champion or bestowing on him the very rare privilege of a new Islamic name, Muhammad Ali, on the very night he became champion. This resulted in the older man being able to not only wean Ali away from Malcolm who, after being suspended by the Nation in December 1963, formed his own organization just two weeks after Ali won the title on February 25, 1964 but also enabled the elder Muhammad to take over the new champion’s financial affairs through his appointment of his own son Herbert as Ali’s business manager.

Ali admits years later that his painful split with Malcolm at Elijah’s bidding was a big mistake on his part and the major regret of his life. As Ali put it: “It was a pity and a disgrace he died like that [assassination] because what Malcolm saw was right, and after he left us, we went his way anyway. Color didn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart, soul and mind that counts.”

Marqusee also provides us with a particularly astute and dynamic comparative analysis of Ali and another ’60s cultural hero and icon, singer and songwriter Bob Dylan. What is revealed in this luminous comparison is how Ali and Dylan, who were only eight months apart in age, both symbolized and represented in strikingly similar and different ways the alienation, restlessness, rebellion and deep thirst and desire for social and cultural change that was so characteristic of an entire generation throughout the world.

As Marqusee writes: “Ali and Dylan were first generation children of the burgeoning electronic audio-visual culture, which was still at that time largely unrecognized as anything other than an inferior and distant cousin to the mature forms of “high culture.” Their public achievements and the controversies that surrounded them helped compel the in telligentsia to take pop culture seriously. By their boldness, their ambitions and, paradoxically, their playfulness, they made their disciplines–sport and popular music–worthy of study…”

The deep appreciation for, and understanding of, popular culture that Marqusee consistently demonstrates in this book is never smug or condescending. In fact his clarity regarding how cultural values, politics, and ideology intersect and influence each other is echoed in his riveting accounts of the rise, rapid expansion and agonizing decline of the black power movement in the 1965-1975 period. This section of the book is framed by a dizzying number of major historical events, two of the most pivotal being the public assassinations of Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who both died at the age of thirty nine only three years apart in 1965 and 1968. In recounting and critically examining these earth-shattering incidents Marqusee very deftly weaves the parallel narrative of not only Muhammad Ali but the history of the Vietnam war (and the intense national anti-war activity and draft resistance against it) and such well-known organizations as SNCC, the Black Panther Party, SDS, and SCLC. In highly dramatic yet measured prose we see in great and fastidious detail how Ali’s courageous stands play a key role in the tremendous explosion of black political and cultural consciousness among young African Americans, as well as the millions of whites who were just beginning to seriously question and oppose the government’s war in Vietnam.

We also witness Ali’s impact on global affairs as the U.S. moves swiftly to prosecute him for his public opposition to the war and the draft. In England, France, Germany, Africa, South America and throughout the Caribbean island nations Ali is universally hailed as a hero moving everyone from the philosophers Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre to foreign government leaders, political revolutionaries, peasants and workingclass people alike to sing his praises and openly defend his position.

Meanwhile Marqusee takes us on a philosophical journey of his own, musing about the historical implications and consequences of Ali’s role in terms of the ultimate meaning of sports in the United States as well as a scintillating critique of what dramatic changes have occured in American political economy and culture (and in the national African American community) since Ali was banned from boxing and had his passport revoked in 1967, was finally legally reinstated (by a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court in June 1971), and defeated Joe Frazier in 1973, George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, and Leon Spinks in 1978 to become world heavyweight champion for a record three times. During this critique Marqusee demonstrates how and why the conservative white and black American establishment began to embrace and coopt the former militancy of Ali after 1975. Thus begins the media’s concerted (and on-going) attempts to distort and manipulate the true meaning of his public legacy.

Finally Marqusee takes the reader full circle from his opening paragraph where he ponders the sobering yet curious fact that where once Ali had been fiercely opposed and reviled by the government, sports writers and media executives he was now in the 1990s being openly lionized and feted by the same powerful public figures and corporate institutions that had once denounced him, took his championship title away and tried to send him to prison. It is also revealed that because of backstage lobbying by NBC Sports Ali was chosen to light the famous torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia before a sold-out crowd of 83,000 people (paying $600 per ticket), and a global TV audience estimated at three billion. However in the final chapter to this seemingly dense, but never boring or ponderous, three-hundred-page masterpiece, Marqusee provides an eloquent, powerful and compelling counterstatement and critique of this cynical appropriation by American and other global capitalists who use the symbolic power and authority of Ali’s international image to sell the Olympic Games and its endless spinoff products.

In a parallel, and very interesting, assessment of the contemporary sports scene Marqusee openly criticizes the global corporate and media absorption of Michael Jordan who, unlike Ali, has always been willingly complicit in the highly profitable exploitation of his image:

“Nothing could be further from the ethos of Muhammad Ali than the no-risk business acumen of Jordan. When campaigners trying to draw attention to the plight of low-paid workers in Nike’s Southeast Asian sweatshops appealed to Jordan for help, they got the brushoff. So did black Democrats in Jordan’s homestate of North Carolina when they asked him to endorse their efforts to defeat the racist, homophobic tobacco champion, Jesse Helms…Ali’s embrace of an alternative nationality, in the form of the Nation of Islam, evolved under the pressure of events into a humanist internationalism, a sense of responsibility to the poor and powerless of all nations. Jordan’s subordination of himself to “America” made him an emblem of “globalization”, a form of rule from above by multinational corporations. His astonishing achievements on the basketball court, and the huge rewards he has reaped from them, are advanced as justifications for “the American way,” the capitalist way. Jordan has become the embodiment of the Social Darwinism of the new world order…”

By historical constrast then we learn the real reasons why Ali and his mythic yet all too real example continues to be of great value today despite the greed-based blandishments of advertisers, promotors, athletes, and consumers alike. It is a fitting coda to a great book that, like its main subject, continually inspires, educates, entertains and transforms our understanding of ourselves, our shared history and the incredibly complex world that we live in. Nothing could be a greater tribute to a true champion of the people.