Muhammad Ali: ‘a marching figure for democracy’?


The man responsible for Muhammad Ali’s autobiography, the former president of Random House publishing house Robert L. Bernstein, was also the founder of the Helsinki Watch human rights organization, notes Alexander Lukashuk.

Bernstein published Ali’s memoir despite the boxer’s notoriety for refusing to serve in the US military during the Vietnam War.

“I hope that we do not live in a country that forbids people to say what they think,” said Bernstein, founder of Advancing Human Rights. “If publishers will stop releasing controversial books, it will be a black day for democracy.”

Ali has been described as “a voice of hope for millions, a man with a noble purpose and great goodwill, a marching figure for respect, hope, democracy, equality, human dignity and reconciliation in turbulent times.”

But Ali “was not a civil rights advocate or activist,” says Gerald Early, professor of English and African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis and editor of “The Muhammad Ali Reader.”

“The Nation of Islam, which Ali joined in 1964, was, if anything, against the civil rights movement and, as a separatist group, opposed to racial integration. The Nation also thought that whites were unnatural beings, while its millennialist bent made members feel superior to civil rights activists,” he writes for The Washington Post.

Whereas Joe Louis “had become one of the principal symbols of American democracy and patriotism during World War II…..Ali saw himself as the anti-Joe Louis,” Early adds:

Ali viewed himself as distinct from Louis, faster and smarter. He also swore he would not wind up broke like Louis. Most notably, in his opposition to the Vietnam War…..In fact, Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War initially was more accidental and panic-stricken than informed political protest. He knew nothing about the war’s politics, and his famous utterance about having nothing against the Viet Cong was just his shocked reaction to reporters about his draft status being changed. 


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