“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people. Just take me to jail.”
— Muhammad Ali on his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War
This week I’ve been amazed at all the tributes to Muhammad Ali. I knew parts of his story, but was unaware of how big a cultural impact he made. What an important and complex life. How significant that a prominent black Muslim man – and a professional fighter! – was a leading voice in resisting war.
One of my favorite stories I’ve heard this week took place in 1981 as his boxing career was winding down. Ali was in LA and received word from a friend that there was a man downtown who was going to jump to his death off an office building. The police had been unable to talk him down, and a gathering crowd was actually yelling at him to “Jump! Jump!” Ali was compelled to go to the scene. As it turned out, the suicidal man was a Vietnam vet traumatized by his war experience. LA Times photographer Boris Yaro got pictures of what happened next and gave this account:
There was this great confusion, and people yelling. I saw this two-toned Rolls-Royce drive through the police lines and a lot of guys jump out, Ali in front of them. He turns into the building, and soon I saw him at a window maybe 20 feet from the jumper, and he yelling at the guy.
We can hear Ali yelling, “I couldn’t lie to you. I love you. You’re my brother.”
“Don’t cry for me, I’m going to jump,” the guy yells back at Ali. And then the guy yells, “Look out! The VC is in the schoolhouse!” God, it was weird. The cops think he was having a flashback.
Anyway, Ali keeps talking. We couldn’t hear all that he was saying, not down on the street. Ali was now talking low and soft to the guy. Then Ali appears right behind the guy on the balcony. He puts his arms around the guy and maybe he stays that way for about a minute and a half. I expected him to pull the guy back, but he didn’t. He took his arms off the guy. Maybe he did that three times, put his arms on the guy and then takes them off. You know a cop would have yanked the guy back, but Ali didn’t. He wanted the guy to come off on his own.
It was like Christ making a disciple. Then the guy put his head on Ali’s shoulder and you could see his body quiver like he was crying heavily. You could see Ali’s face was contorted, that he had been crying, too. Then Ali put his arms around the kid and lifted him, and the kid sort of folded into Ali’s arms. Then they disappeared inside the building.” (Newsday, January 21, 1981)
A few days later Ali spoke to Newsday reporter Bob Waters and said: “I felt love, maybe for the first time. That kind of love, like killing me inside. I love Allah, my wife, my kids, friends. I even love you. But this was screaming inside of me. And I said to myself, ‘Cool, cool, stay cool. Help this brother. Allah, help me help my brother. Oh God, help me.’”