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Muhammad Ali’s meetings with Ku Klux Klan leaders revealed by documentary
Shortly before he fought Joe Frazier in the Philippines in 1975, Muhammad Ali met with the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan.
By Jim White 7:51PM GMT 10 Nov 2008
Far from being embarrassed about sharing jaw-time with the Grand Chief Bigot or whatever the loon in the sheet called himself, Ali boasted about it.
The revelation of his cosy chats with white supremacists comes in a television documentary screened on More4. As Ali finds himself overtaken as the most celebrated black American in history, True Stories: Thrilla In Manila provides a timely re-assessment of his politics.
“I think Ali is being done a disservice by the way in which he’s these days cast as benign,” says John Dower, the film’s director. “He was always a lot more complicated than that.”
Before his third fight with Frazier, Ali was at his most elevated, symbolically as well as in the ring. Hard to imagine when these days he elicits universal reverence, back then he was a figure who divided America, as loathed as he was admired. At the time he was taking his lead from the Nation of Islam, which, in its espousal of a black separatism, found its politics dovetailing with the cross-burning lynch mob out on the political boondocks. Ali was by far the organisation’s most prominent cipher.
The film reminds us why. Back then, black sporting prowess reinforced many a prejudiced theory about the black man being good for nothing beyond physical activity. But here was Ali, as quick with his mind as with his fists. When he held court the world listened. Intriguingly, the film reveals, many of his better lines were scripted for him by his Nation of Islam minders.
Ferdie Pacheco, the man who converted Ali to the bizarre cause which insisted that a spaceship would imminently arrive in the United States to take the black man to a better place, tells Dower’s cameras that it was he who came up with the line, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”. There was never a more succinct summary of America’s hypocrisy in forcing its beleaguered black citizenry to fight in Vietnam.
“Ali has been post-rationalised as a champion of the civil rights movement,” says Dower. “But far from promoting the idea of black and white together, his was a much more tricky, divisive politics.”
The film suggests it was his opponent who got the blunt end of Ali’s political bludgeon. The pair were once friends and Frazier had supported Ali’s stance on refusing the draft. But leading up to the fight Ali turned on his old mate with a ferocity which makes uncomfortable viewing even 30 years on. Viciously disparaging of Frazier, he calls him an Uncle Tom, a white man’s puppet.
Ali riled Frazier to the point where he entered the ring so infuriated that he abandoned his game plan and blindly struck out. So distracted was he by Ali’s politically motivated jibes, he lost. Indeed, what we might be watching in Dower’s film is not so much the apex of Ali’s political potency as the birth of sporting mind games.