Can even the Greatest be free of the past?

Action speaks!
By IAN DONNIS  |  October 3, 2007
Muhammad Ali

Action Speaks!, the thought-provoking annual discussion series at AS220, returns next week a focus on freedom, starting off with Muhammad Ali’s 1964 attempt to separate himself from his “slave name,” by eschewing the moniker Cassius Clay. The name change was wildly controversial at the time, putting him at odds with the boxing, media, and political establishment.
Those slated to take part in the discussion on Wednesday, October 10 at 5 pm, are Ernest Allen, professor of Afro-American studies at UMass-Amherst; former Yankee Jim Bouton, the author of Ball Four; Elliot Gorn, a Brown professor history and author of The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America; and Craig Robinson, the coach of Brown’s men’s basketball team.
The discussion will be preceded by a broadcast (9 pm, Monday) on RI-PBS of the documentary Superfight: Marciano vs. Ali. For more information about Action Speaks!, visit The Phoenix is a cosponsor.
Robinson took part in an e-mail interview in advance of the discussion:

Muhammad Ali’s decision to change his name in was very controversial. how do you regard his decision to change his name, and what meaning does it hold for us today?
When looking back on the name change, I view it as his individual right to practice his religion of choice. This should reiterate to society that while it might be tough to stand up for what you believe in, one can. People like Ali have made it easier for all of us.

How would you describe the role of athletes in the contemporary political climate?
Unfortunately, the role of athletes is virtually non-existent in contemporary politics.

How has your outlook on this been influenced by being Barack Obama’s brother-in-law?
No correlation.

Ali’s name change has been called an effort to free himself from his “slave name.” What’s your sense of the extent to which we as Americans are free of the past, and the degree to which we can be free if we, as a society, tend not to acknowledge slavery and its impact?
You can try to forget the past or revisit and come to different conclusions regarding cause and effect, but you can’t be free of the past. The past shapes the present, which, in turn, shapes our actions in the future. The longer society doesn’t acknowledge slavery, the harder it will be to live with the ramifications.

New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden writes in his book 40 Million Dollar Slaves that the legend surrounding pioneering black athletes like Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Althea Gibson may amount to a crutch for modern day race relations. What do you think?
Unfortunately, I haven’t read his book, so I’d be afraid to comment on what he was thinking or meant by “crutch.” But I will say that what hurts race relations today is the same thing that always hurts race relations – small-minded people who are afraid of exploring the differences (or lack thereof) between themselves and others who appear different.

Related: Ken Norton: A victim of tradition, Flashbacks: October 6, 2006, The return of trash talking, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, Sports, Social Issues,  More more >
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