Ali has died aged 74. As a white 12 year old boy I idolised him without embarassment or constraintby Sam Tanenhaus / June 4, 2016 / Leave a comment
He was the first famous person I ever saw in the flesh. It was in November 1967, six months after his sentencing to five years in prison for refusing induction in to the US Army at the peak of the Vietnam War. I had just turned 12, and Ali—it was always just “Ali,” just as it was always “Brando” and “Dylan”—visited the campus of the state University of Iowa in Iowa City. My father was on the faculty and perhaps he told me Ali was coming. I see now in the campus newspaper, the Daily Iowan, that Ali arrived on short notice—from Chicago—and it was standing room only in the ballroom where he spoke. I don’t remember how I got a seat or even, frankly, why I was there, except for the obvious reason: for me, as for so many young Americans in the 1960s, Ali really was “the Greatest.” He said it with mock insistence, and a world of adults seemed joined in a conspiracy to prove him right: the Army, the federal government, the World Boxing Association, which had stripped Ali of the title he had won when he had humiliated the fearsome Sonny Liston in one of the greatest upsets in the history of modern sport.
I remember only bits of Ali’s speech that day, a gentle version of black separatist dogma. Or so it seemed. The edge was harder, I see from the Daily Iowan. “A Frankenstein was created during 300 years of slavery,” Ali said. “Now it’s backfiring on you… In the past the black man has seen a white Santa Claus, a white Jesus and white angels. The colored angels were probably in the kitchen preparing milk and honey. He’d see a whi…