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Arts & Culture

Breaking Down Muhammad Ali's Legacy Across Generations

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Muhammad Ali famously had many words to describe himself. Here are some of them. I am America, he said. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me - black, confident, cocky - My name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me. Muhammad Ali inspired generations of black Americans from the civil rights era through today. To examine that part of his legacy, we reached Jelani Cobb. He writes about race, politics and culture for The New Yorker. He joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

JELANI COBB: Thank you.

MARTIN: Muhammad Ali won his first heavyweight title. Soon after that, he changed from Cassius Clay - that he called his slave name - that was 1964, the same year that the Civil Rights Act would be passed. What did it mean in that moment to take that kind of action?

COBB: Well, I think that Ali was really symbolic of the changing zeitgeist at that point. And there was a new generation of African-Americans who were coming to the foreground who had a different perspective on race, a different perspective on their relationship to the United States and to their citizenship and a much more kind of defiant attitude. I think that Ali was probably the most symbolic individual of that, especially when he changed his name so quickly.

So it's also important to remember that, you know, boxing had a different kind of status than it does now. You know, the heavyweight champion carried a different kind of cultural weight than, you know, that position or that title holds now. And so this was someone who was very much at the pinnacle of the sports world at that point who had made this defiant turn. And so I don't think there's anything - it was really unprecedented in terms of comparison.

MARTIN: How did his role in black life change over the generations? I mean, how - have later generations of African-Americans seen him differently?

COBB: Well, I think the generation before him saw him differently certainly. And, you know, when you looked at the earlier kind of character - you know, athletic, African-American athlete as a character - and they were often expected to be a kind of unqualified patriot. And, you know, if you think about people like Joe Louis or Jesse Owens, they were fighting to be recognized as full citizens and very circumspect about, you know, the anger and the toll - you know, Jackie Robinson in that category as well - having to constrain, you know, their disdain for racism and the kind of resentment that it could generate.

And Ali was different. I think he was bewildering to some of those older athletes. And, you know, Joe Louis in particular didn't quite understand where he was coming from in terms of how he articulated himself. But for a generation after - for people who are in my generation, you know, we saw Ali as this kind of heroic figure. Like, the changes that he fought to make in the culture had been so institutionalized by the time that we came along that we could see him, you know, as a hero without those sorts of complexities I think people before him saw.

One of the things I think that was most notable to me from my childhood when I think about Ali is that DC Comics (laughter) actually produced an edition in which Muhammad Ali fought Superman - and won, actually. And so that was a very different from the person who had been reviled and criticized for, you know, refusing to be inducted into the Army for the Vietnam War.

MARTIN: And just briefly, I understand you have a poster - a picture of him on your wall.

COBB: Yeah, it's interesting. The day before it - you know, the news broke that he had fallen ill, I had just - I was in the midst of moving. And I had just hung this very large print I have from the third Ali-Frazier fight. And I'd just moved in. And that was one of the first things that I hung. And it wasn't out of a sense of nostalgia or anything because of his ill health because I wasn't aware of it at that point. It's simply because I wanted him on that wall.

MARTIN: Jelani Cobb is a writer for The New Yorker magazine. Thanks so much for sharing your reflections with us.

COBB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.