It was around hour four of my 12-hour flight back from Tokyo that Muhammad Ali made me cry. The in-flight movie selections included the 2014 biographical documentary “I Am Ali,” which highlighted a 1969 interview with British journalist Ian Wooldridge, who asks Ali asked why he threw away his boxing career by refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali, that tireless factory of bombast, lashes back that the war is unjust. If the Vietnamese people invaded US soil, he says, he’d lead the charge to defend the homeland. Young black men shouldn’t “throw their lives away” for the white government’s war. Ali finishes, “So what in the hell is a heavyweight title, and a few stinky dollar bills, for my people’s freedom?”
That’s when I began to cry. Partly out of the truth and tragedy of Ali’s words and the Vietnam War itself, and partly because I’d never heard Ali talk about anything besides boxing. Oh, I heard about him in school and on TV programs over the years. I heard about how he was an uncouth, egomaniacal brute who punched people in the face for money. I heard he was a loudmouth who turned his back on Christianity and his own name, supposedly for the sake of fashion and fame. But I didn’t hear that he spoke at civil rights rallies. I didn’t know he gave up five years of his career and appeared before the Supreme Court as a conscientious objector. All I knew was that Muhammad Ali was No Angel.
The same goes for one of Ali’s contemporaries, Malcolm X. Charismatic genius and champion for civil rights he might have been, let me tell you what I learned about Malcolm X in school: “By Any Means Necessary.” The wrathful Yin to MLK’s nonviolent Yang. I also was fed a single image of Malcom X, over and over. I’m sure you’ve seen it too: he’s behind a podium, glaring through those horn rim glasses of his, index finger forcefully upraised, teeth clamped over his bottom lip as he makes what looks like the sound of an F. Plenty of other pictures—he was a public figure, after all, and widely photographed—portray him as the confident, articulate scholar he was. As the man who stood along Maya Angelou and Dr. King in defense of the human rights his people had supposedly won a century before.
Which brings us to the most troubling non-angel of them all, Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t remember who first “taught” me this lesson, and I have no interest in pointing fingers at any one person for it. But every speech we studied in school, every impassioned cry for respect and dignity, every insistence from Dr. King that the Civil Rights movement must always remain nonviolent—“turn the other cheek,” as another famous non-white martyr once put it—was tempered by the allegation that Dr. King was an adulterer. I must have heard this around fifth or sixth grade, at the age when many of my classmates’ parents were working themselves into a pious froth about the school teaching us a fairly dry and clinical version of Sex Ed. But perhaps it truly is important for history to remember the marital infidelity of powerful men. The media certainly think so, at least regarding King. Every year on MLK day, we get articles like this one, lest we forget.
It begs the question: why don’t elementary and junior high students hear that Thomas Jefferson had a penchant for visiting one or more of his slaves at night? Why doesn’t every story about FDR end with, “Sure the New Deal helped millions of people, but we mustn’t forget that he also spent years cheating on Eleanor in that little shed behind the White House”? Why do so few teacher’s lesson plans mention the young men Abe Lincoln used as bed-warmers during cold winter nights in the West Wing while Mary Todd slept in separate chambers?
But never mind them. This February—every February—we need to look back and remember that Dr. King was No Angel. Nor was Malcolm X, nor Muhammad Ali. Nor was Eric Garner, who illegally sold single cigarettes for 75 cents apiece to working men and women on the sidewalk. Nor was Mike Brown, the “demon” boy who spent hours lying face down in his own cooling blood for stealing cigars (except it seems he didn’t steal them at all). Nor was Trayvon Martin, who, according to his media-given epitaph, was also No Boy Scout. Nor was Ramarley Graham, who, after the police smashed their way into his home without a warrant, allegedly reached into his waistband for a gun that was never found; nor Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old who frightened the Cleveland police so badly they waited only two seconds before opening fire upon him in a public park; nor John Crawford, who never suspected that picking up a BB gun in a Wal Mart would be a capital offense.
Those men couldn’t have been Angels, because if they were, their deaths might have forced our culture to face the fact that #blacklivesmatter. Those of us who count ourselves as #whiteallies without technically having done anything to prove it might actually have to #taketothestreets with our #handsup and shout, alongside other terrified men, women and children that we #cantbreathe as long as there is #nojusticenopeace.
So maybe next time, maybe the next dead Black man will be an Angel. But somehow I doubt it.