Diagnosis for Democracy
Insights into the State of Our Union
A Blog by Rob Tenery, MD


Two Black Men Who Had a Chance to Change the World

By Rob Tenery, MD on June 27, 2016

Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1961 to a white mother and a black father. He graduated from Columbia and Harvard Law School, where he served as President of the Harvard Law Review. He was a community organizer* in Chicago and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He served three terms in the Illinois Senate. After running unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, gaining national attention with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. He upset Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and went on to defeat John McCain in the general election 2008 to become the 44th President of the United States.

Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. Clay’s father, a descendent of slaves, painted billboards and signs for a living, and his mother worked as a domestic housekeeper. Growing up with segregation, Clay’s mother tells the story of her son being denied a drink of water at a local store just because he was black.  This incident really affected hm. His choice to take up boxing came when his bicycle was stolen at age twelve. Angered, the young Clay told a local police officer that he wanted to “whup” the thief. The officer, who also was a boxing coach, suggested that young Clay learn how to box first. Fighting his way up in the amateur rankings, with 100 wins and five losses, at age 18, he won the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.

At age 22, Clay won the WBC and WBA heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964. Shortly thereafter, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and adopted the Muslim faith, claiming Clay was his slave name. He was searching for a faith as he confronted the indignities of racial discrimination. What he found was the Nation of Islam, the controversial black Muslims who preached a doctrine of strict separation of the races and described white people as devils. Ali parted ways with the Nation after about a decade, embracing mainstream Islam, which teaches that believers should embrace all races and ethnicities.**

In 1966, citing his new religious beliefs, as a conscientious objector, and opposing the American involvement in the Vietnam War, Ali refused his induction into the military. He was arrested, stripped of his boxing titles and found guilty of draft evasion. He appealed the decision that was taken to the Supreme Court, and his conviction was overturned in 1971.

After several memorable fights, the best were the two against Joe Frazier, Ali regained his title when he defeated George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, in the fight nicknamed, ‘The Rumble in the Jungle.” It was with this victory over Foreman, Ali, who had lost the reflexes and speed of his twenties, demonstrated why he was named Fighter of the Year five times by The Ring magazine and Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. He was able to play on his opponent’s weaknesses, such as his rope-a-dope technique to wear down the more powerful Forman.  To those who follow the sporting world, even outside of boxing he has lovingly nicknamed, “The Greatest”.

Ali loved the spotlight. Not only was he a boxer, but he had a great sense of humor --- talking trash, creating poetry to intimidate his opponents, being ahead of his time with rap. But what may be his greatest legacy is when, in 1985, he devoted his life to philanthropy by helping promote world peace, civil rights, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations and humanitarianism.

Barack Obama loves the spotlight too. His tenure as President is coming to an end. It will soon be time for the historians to take over and judge him for what he accomplished during his eight years in the White House. Obama came into office at a difficult time. His campaign pledge of ‘Hope and Change’ in 2008, was to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and bring this country out of its worst recession since the Great Depression. Being the first black President, Obama also had the opportunity to bridge any remaining racial divide.

As far as the wars in the Middle East, Obama disengaged our troops as he promised, only to watch the rise of ISIS with the formation of a Caliphate State, taking over much of Syria and Iraq. From the point of view of ending the recession that Obama inherited, the numbers speak for themselves. Unemployment has decreased from 7.6% from when he took office to currently 5.8%. However, a truer measurement that takes into account those who are working only part-time but like to work full-time is 11.4%. Additionally, the median family income, adjusted for inflation has decreased by $211, since Obama came into office in 2009.  During that same period, those in poverty increased by 6.83 million and the national debt went up by $8.2 trillion.

Even though he had a white mother and a black father, Obama seems to never be able put his ‘blackness’ aside. The opportunities afforded him with an education at Columbia and Harvard Law School were not used to build bridges, but, as a community organizer, to point out differences.** Violence in the black community as seen in Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago rivals that seen in the 1960s, during his tenure.

In 1986, Muhammad Ali, began his most difficult fight--- his 30 year struggle against Parkinson’s disease.  Even in his deteriorating condition, he never shied away from the public eye.

 What may have been Ali’s greatest moment was, in 1996,  his taking of the Olympic torch from swimmer, Janet Evans. With the tremor of his left hand noticeable, he lit the flame that led to the caldron signaling the opening at the Atlanta Summer games. Standing alone, atop the platform with his obvious weakness exposed to the world, Ali represented the hopes and dreams of all Americans.

Instead of patting this country on its back for his greatness, Obama has, on repeated occasions, apologized to countries around the world for this country’s ‘hasty decisions’.***

Toward the end of his life, Ali became even more introspective. “Ali seems more like a prophet than a provocateur. He followed his heart and spoke his mind, and willingly paid the price for doing so. He refused to bow to his disease just as had refused to bow to bigotry. The greatest thing about the man who called himself the Greatest is his inspiring, unforgettable courage", quotes Jess Cagle, Editorial Director, People magazine, June 20, 2016.

In time, there will be comparisons between these two men, and how they both had the opportunity to change the world by bringing together those of different and sometimes even opposing interests. The first black President of the United States and the three-time heavyweight-boxing champion. The verdict is still out, but I’ll put my money on ‘The Greatest’!

 

REFERENCES:

 

* The simplest way to describe community organizing is to say it is the practice of identifying a specific aggrieved population, say unemployed steelworkers, or itinerant fruit-pickers, or residents of a particularly bad neighborhood, and agitating them until they become so upset about their condition that they take collective action to put pressure on local, state, or federal officials to fix the problem, often by giving the affected group money. Organizers like to call that “direct action.”

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/225564/what-did-obama-do-community-organizer-byron-york

 

**Sharon Cohen, AP National Writer, How Ali found home in Nation of Islam, his start as Muslim

 

***Remarks by President Obama on national security at the White House on 5/21/09. "Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions.  I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people.  But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.  Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford.  And during this season of fear, too many of us -- Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens -- fell silent. In other words, we went off course."  

 

 

 





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