Americans viewed the recent inauguration through varied prisms. For sure, there was more excitement over this changing of the guard than I have seen in my lifetime.
While I had to go up to the mountain and teach skiing on the morning of the inauguration, I got an early look at the TV as I was readying myself. While brushing my teeth, I saw an elderly, almost feeble black man, dressed impeccably, making his way with some difficulty to his seat in preparation for the inaugural event.
Something looked hauntingly familiar, and then I just choked up, with no warning. I finally recognized the “old man” as Mohammed Ali. You see, Ali is fully two years younger than me.
Watching that elegant body, once the envy of the sporting world, now slowed and humbled by a wicked combination of age and infirmity, was more than I could bear. The tears began to flow of themselves. I then started to ruminate on what Ali had gone through when he refused to go to Vietnam, citing his religious beliefs. There were thousands of other conscientious objectors, but Ali was world famous, black, cocky, and Muslim. The racism that ensued around the country back then, was white-hot, and as hateful as one could ever imagine.
To gain perspective, this happened in the ‘60’s. A boy from the Upper Midwest, I saw my first “Colored Only” bathrooms and drinking fountains in the summer of ’62, enroute to Parris Island, South Carolina for an extended date with the Marine Corps. Ali’s troubles with the government over his religious beliefs and unwillingness to serve in Vietnam were still well ahead of him..
After I calmed down, I thought how wonderful it must be for Ali to see an African-American man being elected to the highest position in the land. While things often appear less than perfect, anybody who doesn’t believe this country has improved over the last four decades hasn’t been watching much.
A few days later, on a welcomed morning off, I was sitting outside in our hot tub, watching the snow fall, with a cup of coffee and a twenty year-old copy of Sports Illustrated.
My wife has been badgering me about getting rid of old classics such as this, threatening to send them off to our son Matt, who like his father, has a penchant for old sports stories. I thumbed though the magazine until I saw an article by Hank Hersch, titled Choosing Sides.
It was a story of a Conway, South Carolina high school football team, where a coach decided to replace the previous year’s starting quarterback, a black kid, with a white kid who had played sparingly that season. Of course, the race thing reared its head, and 31 of 37 black players, 15 of whom were starters, began a boycott, and sat out the season. While the story was of mild interest to me, it refocused the still proud but somewhat battered image of Ali back to my mind, along with others.
I grew up in hockey crazy (and at that time lily-white) Minnesota, and memories of hearing that “blacks couldn’t play hockey, because their ankles were weak,” and other forms of racial stupidity and bigotry ran through my mind. Of course, we all heard the same things about quarterbacks, with yet other equally stupid assumptions.
Now we have elected a black man to the nation’s highest office, and by overwhelming numbers. As with other prejudices, it’s now almost difficult to look back and see what a barrier this had been. Perhaps not, however, for the magnificent Mohammed Ali, those 31 kids who missed a season of high school football, and countless others.
What is most heartening was the joyous enthusiasm of Americans of all ages, weights, sizes, ages, gender, colors, preferences, and backgrounds, over the fact that we as a nation have duly elected a man of true intellect, compassion, and apparent common sense, to lead us out of perhaps the most difficult times of my life.
All Americans should hold their heads high in recognition that we were the first of the western countries to elect the best man for the job, regardless of skin color. Our European friends, who have been understandably critical of the acerbic tone of America towards her longest and most loyal allies over the past eight years, have never accomplished anything quite like this. They are demonstrably proud of us for once again accepting our position as a real leader of the free world.
Is racism gone in America? I doubt it. Has Barack Obama greatly diminished its relevance? You bet.
I would have given anything to get a peek into the mind and heart of Mohammed Ali that morning, as he struggled to get his seat.
There had to be a joy that surpassed anything he ever experienced in that canvas-floored office he toiled in so magnificently.