At the South-West corner of Parliament Square in London is a statue of Nelson Mandela, smiling broadly with his arms outstretched, as if ready to embrace anybody who walks by.
The incongruous sight of the great South-African being celebrated in bronze on one of England’s most important political sites is made all the moreso by the collective amnesia that is sometimes applied to great men who grow old.
As head of the ANC, an organisation many British Conservatives described as ‘terrorists’, Mandela was viewed for nearly two decades in Britain as a dangerous, revolutionary socialist. The idea of having a statue of him less than a hundred metres from the Houses of Parliament would have seemed as ridiculous then as putting one up of Edward Snowden sounds now.
The astonishing evolution of Mandela from national threat to beloved public figure was brought to mind this week with the sad passing of another truly transcendent man, Muhammad Ali. Without exception, everyone lined up to pay tribute to the great boxer. Even Donald Trump allowed himself a moment away from reviling all things Muslim to tweet his admiration for Ali.
I have to admit it made me angry. Ali’s long battle with Parkinson’s robbed him not just of his body but of his strongest weapon, his voice, and the world was allowed more than 30 years to forget the kind of man Ali was and make up an entirely different version, cuddly, friendly and entirely devoid of the passion and character that made his life so great.
Because had Ali been in his prime today he would have been a supremely controversial character. I have no doubt that many right-wing politicians would have labeled him a terrorist. Ali’s life exposes just how weak a character Tiger Woods (for example) was by comparison.
While there is no doubt that inside the ring Ali was a phenomenon (and one of the best in history), it was outside that his greatness really spoke. Ali was an agitator, a contrarian and a supremely principled and passionate man. His entire career was filled with the kind of controversy that no athlete on earth has come close to provoking since.
Ali was ‘black and proud’ before they even invented the phrase. He claimed to have thrown his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river after he was refused service at a whites-only restaurant on his return to America.
Changing from his ‘slave’ name of Cassius Clay was symbolic of Ali’s desire to forge a free identity, but it was his embracing of Islam that really put the wind up everybody. Ali palled around with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, a group widely seen as dangerously anti-American. His refusal to fight in Vietnam has to be seen in the context of 1967, when the war received broad public support. It’s easy to look back on Vietnam now, and see it for the disastrous idiocy it all was, but when Ali said ‘no Viet-Cong ever called me nigger’ it was a mind-boggling piece of incendiary rhetorical petrol. Ali paid for his stance by losing the best three years of his career and the millions that went with it. He spent those three years speaking at colleges across the US, criticising the war and talking about black empowerment. Try to imagine any current athlete having the charisma and courage to do that in these troubled times.
Ali said so many things so often that he often got it wrong. He called Joe Frazier an ‘Uncle Tom’, a desperately misjudged and racially charged denigration of a true champion boxer and man. His grasp of Islam seemed at times childish and one-dimensional. Yet he was universally loved, because although he told us he was the greatest, he also said that he believed in equality for everyone. Ali took stands because he felt they were morally right, and took society’s blows when those views did not match with prevailing public opinion.
Muhammad Ali was truly one of the great men of the 20th Century.
Just 600-metres from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is the Martin Luther King Memorial. Like Ali, Dr King spent most of his adulthood being roundly condemned by political society, and viewed (and treated) as not much less than a terrorist, a threat to the very fabric of the nation. Yet there he is, 30-feet high and made of granite, middle of bloody Washington.
Here’s the thing. Martin Luther King was bugged for years by the FBI, who compiled files on the man that showed his fondness for excessive alcohol and the company of numerous women many years his junior, who were conspicuously not his wife.
These flawed, passionate men, who made outrageous and often ill-judged pronouncements and decisions. How are we to judge greatness.
To me, the measure of any man (and woman) is their moral compass, and the proud expression of their passions. The confidence of this expression, often in the teeth of prevailing fashions and sometimes at great personal cost, elevates those who have that courage to true greatness. You can be almost universally derided, and called a terrorist and a threat to the nation, yet end up with your statue in the main square, with not a soul to say a bad word about you. Be strong. Cause a fuss.
Ali, boma ye.