Recently, I attended the Chicago premier of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, an 86-minute documentary by Bill Siegel. Siegel is an Academy Award nominated filmmaker, who resides in the same little suburb as do I. This personal, albeit distant, connection was the first in a series of connections that have left me thinking about this film ever since.
Why do you go to the movies? It is rare for me to go to a documentary screening at a theater, unless it is part of a festival of some kind. Mostly, I go to the movies to exploit what the big screen has that even the largest flat-screen TV cannot provide; larger than life explosions, epic stunts, and magnificent vantages - all of which allow me to completely suspend disbelief. And that is the magic of the movies.
I am hooked, like most of America, on films. Always have been. When The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was first produced, I spent an entire day in the theater, munching popcorn and watching it over and over. And loving it every time! When the capacity crowd was ushered to a side exit which fed into an alleyway after a viewing of The Exorcist, I shuffled along pressed against the strangers beside me as the crowd formed one delightedly scared mass until we scattered into the safety of the sidewalk and lights and traffic. Watching The Trials of Muhammad Ali was something different.
I followed the storyline and images, marveling at how very handsome he was and learning things that I had not known previously about Muhammad Ali’s life and career. Yet, at the same time, I was transported into my own memories of life during those years, as if there were a parallel track playing simultaneously.
Muhammed Ali won Olympic gold, and I graduated elementary school. He was so cute! I wasn’t.
- 1961 - 1963
While Muhammed Ali was building his boxing legacy:
George Jackson, aged 18, was sent to San Quentin after an armed robbery conviction, sentenced to 1 year to life. He would later become one of the “Soledad Brothers.” He was killed during an escape attempt from Soledad Prison in 1971.
|Robert Franklin Williams and Mao Zedong.|
Robert Franklin Williams evaded arrest by going to Cuba with his family after being falsely accused of kidnapping. He would come to travel to China and ultimately return to the U.S. in 1969, on a plane where he and the U.S. marshals were the only passengers. Once he was extradited for trial, the State of North Carolina dropped all charges.
The Nation of Islam membership rose to 30,000 under the recruitment efforts of Malcolm X.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter From A Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington occurred.
I was learning that one must stand for what you believe; share those beliefs with others and speak your mind; don’t automatically oppose that which feels wrongly different from everything that you’ve previously known; recognize that the justice system is most often unfair; and, sometimes even the best and brightest are lost.
- 1964 - 1965
Muhammad Ali becomes heavyweight champion and announces that he has joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Cassius X. Malcolm X breaks with the Nation of Islam, and was subsequently assassinated in 1965.
Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The U.S. Congress passes the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
- 1966 - 1969
Cassius X, now Muhammad Ali, declares himself a conscientious objector and refuses military service. He is charged with refusing induction and found guilty. He is stripped of his title and banned from boxing.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is formed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. African-American communities in urban areas erupt in violence.
Black Panther Fred Hampton is assassinated by the Chicago Police Department, in collusion with the F.B.I., while sleeping in his bed on the west side of Chicago.
Robert Kennedy is assassinated.
I learned many, many lessons about politics and activism. And many, many more lessons about how I would come to express myself in these realms.
- 1970 - 1971
The Supreme Court reverses Muhammad Ali’s 1967 conviction, paving the way for his return to boxing and regaining his title.
The Ohio National Guard fires on unarmed students, who are protesting at Kent State University, killing 4 and wounding 9 others.
The police fire on unarmed students protesting the invasion of Cambodia at Jackson College in Jackson, Mississippi, killing 2 and wounding 12 others.
I went to Europe.
It is very hard to realize that all this was so many years ago now. Even harder to accept that the lessons of those years are in need of being learned all over again today. But, what is exciting is to know that there are young leaders emerging again, as well. Have at it, Dream Defenders! (http://dreamdefenders.org) It’s quite a ride!