“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
OPINION – I remember it as though it were yesterday. Los Angeles was on fire. No, I do not mean figuratively, I mean literally on fire!
It was August of 1965 and I was a somewhat precocious eight year old. I was in the midst of my favorite time of year, with school out and my beloved Dodgers on their way to another pennant. Back in those days, the “pennant” really meant something because only two teams total; one from the American League and one from the National League, had the opportunity to play in the “Fall Classic” otherwise known as the World Series. During August of 1965, Maury Wills was on his way to establishing a new stolen base record of 94 and the combination of Dodger ace pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had mowed down the entire National League including our dreaded rivals; the San Francisco Giants.
I lived “on the westside” of the African-American community of Los Angeles in what has now morphed into a more widespread South Central Los Angeles. I lived between Crenshaw on the East and West Boulevard on the west with Washington Boulevard to the north and Adams Boulevard to our south. No, it was not deepest, darkest South Central (take that reference as you will) but it was as segregated a community as any you would find in St. Louis, Missouri or rural Mississippi from where my parents each immigrated from. My neighborhood growing up was a set of striking contradictions.
The Beach Boys and the Monkees and other Caucasian bands sang of moonlit Los Angeles evenings with beachside bonfires and endless days of “hanging ten” (toes that is) over the edges of one’s surfboard. None of us in the hood experienced that Los Angeles. Instead, we experienced school segregation that was so pervasive, a court had to order it to cease and for Black children to be bussed across the vast reaches of the Los Angeles basin in order to even have the hope of a quality education. My evenings in Los Angeles were much more likely to have the serenade of police sirens competing with the thumpity-thumpity-thump of the rotors of what we jokingly referred to as the “ghetto bird” aka a police or sheriff’s helicopter.
Well the summer of 1965 was a particularly tense one in Black Los Angeles. Many of the same dynamics which have led us to proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” were present in 1965 Los Angeles. During 1965, Black people in general, but more specifically Black men in Los Angeles and throughout the country were fed up with being fed up. By 1965, Black America had been promised over and over that we would receive our “forty acres and a mule,” if we would just remain patient and trust that it would be so. We were promised this as prejudice and discrimination showed itself over and over in education, housing, employment and every aspect of our daily lives.
On the evening of August 11, 1965 it all boiled over when during a “routine traffic stop” of a 21 year-old Black man by the name of Marquette Frye, all Hell broke loose! Several days later, Los Angeles still smoldered as over 1,000 people rioted destroying the commercial core of one of the most densely populated sections of the Black community in the “Watts” section of Los Angeles. Thirty-four persons lost their lives in the violence. Deep black smoke billowed for days all over the city and the National Guard was deployed to restore order when then mayor Sam Yorty and former police chief William Parker claimed the LAPD were too overwhelmed to restore order without additional “military” assistance. Coincidentally, our state’s current governor’s father, Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, Sr. was governor of California at the time.
I remember being confused when I looked up at familiar landmarks in my community and saw them literally occupied by “troops.” There was a Marshall Law type curfew in effect which blanketed the city at the time and Blacks were warned that if they were out in defiance of the curfew they would be shot and killed without question. I remember seeing troop transport vehicles and vehicles with guns affixed to them like I saw watching popular television shows of the era, but this was taking place in my neighborhood rather than on a Hollywood soundstage.
During the sixties and seventies, I was raised in a home with two college educated parents and my father was a World War II era naval officer. I was expected to respect and submit to authority and to be proud of my country. However, as I entered my teenage years, I was much more inclined to be swayed by the fiery rhetoric of Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael than I was Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. or other more passive civil rights leaders.
The events leading up to and beyond the 1965 Watts Riots left this then eight year old boy completely confused and angry. There were no Caucasians in my entire neighborhood —-period—-except for teachers and cops and they made sure to depart before sunset. I could not celebrate heroism and embrace the role modeling of the comic book super heroes because they were in my mind representative of the oppressor. Even on my beloved Dodgers, I embraced a segregated hero worship of the Black Dodgers e.g., Maury Wills; Sweet Lou Johnson and the Davis boys Tommy and Willie. I never could identify with Koufax and Drysdale and Osteen as an aspirational goal of the type of MAN I wished to become because after all, they were white men and I would NEVER become that.
It was at this time a beautiful “Black Butterfly” emerged (who in his own words stung his opponents like a bee) that was the immortal “Louisville Lip,” aka Cassius Marcellus Clay; aka Muhammad Ali. Ali was regularly speaking his mind on issues outside of the traditional realm of sports and this could not have come at a better time in my life. Central casting in Hollywood could not have made Muhammad Ali up. Just the year before, in 1964, Cassius Clay had dethroned the seemingly unstoppable Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. By the time of the Watts Riots, “Clay” had converted to Islam and joined the Nation of Islam which called for him to change his name to Muhammad Ali. While many in America were reviled by young Ali’s conversion, many of us in the Black community were elated that Ali had joined an organization we believed represented an empowered Black race. I was during the sixties and seventies, and remain today, a strong supporter of the Nation of Islam and many of its edicts and principles.
During the seventies, I sprang from a teenage era of mischief and pseudo-revolution to embrace the example of brother Muhammad Ali. He dressed sharp, he talked a mile a minute and he had “swag” before there was swag. And yes, he was even “pretty” and oh so charismatic. However, to me, he was most impressive when he confounded scholars and talk show hosts and members of the media as they attempted to challenge his devotion to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Even when Ali departed the Nation for transition to a more traditional form of Islam, he did not “bad mouth” the teachings of his former faith. I guess we can add loyal to the terms courageous and selfless when describing Ali’s character.
I had the honor of meeting Muhammad Ali in person who at the time, had been silenced by the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. Despite his disease, Ali was expressive with his eyes and was able to communicate effectively with me and others in the room on an almost telepathic basis.
I am saddened as I look to today’s athletes for their comparative lack of courage and conviction when compared to Muhammad Ali. Today’s athletes strike a careful pose constructed by media types and handlers few, if any of whom are Black themselves. Unlike Ali, who remained connected to our community on an unprecedented level, today’s athlete’s strive to put as much distance between themselves and the community as they can. While athletes today chase endorsement deals, Ali risked money, fame and his liberty for defiance born of his deeply held religious and political beliefs. When told to report for duty during the Vietnam War, Ali simply said no because of his faith and his belief that it was unacceptably hypocritical to suggest to him that he should take up arms to protect a government responsible for discriminating against him and millions like him. In the face of great prejudice, Muhammad Ali, by his example, showed an exemplary and unwavering amount of pride. When Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title and threatened with a monetary fine and actual incarceration, had there been a betting line established, it would have decidedly not been in Ali’s favor. Ali was convicted of draft evasion at the lower federal court level.
As a lawyer, I was curious about the underlying facts leading the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately vote unanimously to overturn Ali’s lower court conviction on draft dodging charges. The actual Supreme Court vote was 8-0 with Justice Thurgood Marshall recusing himself from the case because of his personal opposition to the Nation of Islam’s promotion of racial separation. Justice Marshall did not believe he could maintain impartiality relative to Ali. It turned out, a law clerk to one of the most conservative members of the Court, was the one credited with arguing Ali’s claim of his entitlement to a draft exemption to be analogous to the exact same arguments that had been previously accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court when used to grant Jehovah’s Witnesses exemption form the draft.
As I collected my thoughts through my reflection of the life of Muhammad Ali, my first hero, I was drawn to a quote from Jane Austen, of all people. Austen in the classic nineteenth century English novel Pride and Prejudice, speaks through one of her characters when stating “(m)y courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” Truer words could never have been spoken with reference to the Champ.
It is for Ali’s legacy of pride in the face of prejudice that I will be eternally grateful.
By Mark Harris
Mark T. Harris is a licensed attorney in Sacramento, California. Additionally, Harris is a tenured lecturer at the University of California, Merced where he is the Director of Pre-law Studies and is President of Central Valley Leaders, a non-profit organization devoted to developing young leaders. Professor Harris served as California Undersecretary of Business, Transportation and Housing and as President Clinton’s Deputy Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Commerce under the late Secretary Ronald H. Brown.