In its observance of the recently ended Black History Month, my friend Michel Martin at NPR’s “Tell Me More” asked if I’d record an homage to someone from history that I admire. I chose Muhammad Ali.
Ali was an immediate choice, not because he was a great boxer (he was, as he knew, “The Greatest of All Time”) but because he burst on the public scene during the tumultuous 1960s, a period of history that defined black identity for me and my generation. I was a child of the Civil Rights era, one who matured into adulthood at the moment the chains of segregation were unlocked. Ali was one of the brothers with the key.
In doing research for my radio commentary, I came across a fascinating video clip of a television interview that Ali conducted, probably on a British television station, after he regained his heavyweight title with the upset victory in 1974 over George Foreman. In the interview, the presenter noted that Ali was the second-most popular person in the United States—trailing only then-President Richard Nixon. (Really? I’m not sure who conducted that poll!) Anyway, the presenter asked Ali, “Do you want to be president?”
Without missing a beat, Ali said “No.” He went on to explain in simple, colorful language why he wouldn’t ever want to be president. He concluded with a prophetic summary. “America’s in too much trouble,” Ali said smiling. “I don’t want that job now. Something to think about, ain’t it?”
Yes, indeed. Ali’s humor and genius foreshadowed the challenges besetting the current occupant of the White House, who happens to be the first black president. President Barack Obama came into office to clean up the economic, fiscal, and international political messes created by his predecessor. The country was sinking in debt. Two wars in the Middle East sapped wiggle room for domestic programs. The nation’s banking system was on the verge of collapse, threatening to send the country into a second Great Depression.
Though little credit seems to flow Obama’s way, he has averted nearly every disaster he had no hand in creating. Slowly, Americans are beginning to sense that things are turning around for the better. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the president’s approval rating rose to 50 percent in January from 45 percent in December, marking the first time he’d been praised by half of the poll responders since last June. Still, more respondents were unhappy as 47 percent disapproved of him, up from 46 percent in December.
What all this suggests is that Ali knew what he was talking about, not merely making a clever joke. He was offering an insightful analysis of the racial politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s that applies even to this day for African Americans in positions of political power in the United States.
Beginning in Cleveland with Carl Stokes’s election in 1967 as the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, black politicians made headlines as they took over City Halls across the country. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, black men were elected mayors in places such as Gary, IN; Detroit; Atlanta; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.
Almost without exception, those mayors came into office when their cities were facing serious social and financial distress. Their ascent coincided with the downturn of their cities as heavy, job-producing industries left urban centers. Affluent, taxpaying white residents raced each other to the suburbs and exurbia, often with the wink-and-nod support of state and federal governments.
What remained for those pioneering black mayors to govern were cities with overwhelmed police departments, gang crime, a crack epidemic, poverty-induced slums, and deteriorating public schools. Blogger Joshua Lazards, who writes for the online site Uppity Negro Network, noted the same concern as Ali did a generation earlier. “Essentially, many black mayors were given the helm to sinking ships,” Lazards posted.
So it comes as no surprise that someone as well-liked as Ali could joke about staying in the boxing ring and not risking his popularity by aspiring to be president. But things may well turn out differently for President Obama compared to Ali’s worries 40 years ago or to the debilitating experiences of the big-city black mayors. The president seems to enjoy his job just fine—and so far he’s steered our erstwhile endangered ship clear of threatening waters.
It’s all good. Ali wisely never went into elected politics, and the man in the White House probably wouldn’t have been much of a heavyweight boxer, either.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.