The words of the greatest of all time still ring true 50 years later, the Tribune columnist writes.
I recently saw a video on social media of Muhammad Ali some 50 years ago making a real strong point about race in America. The man not only was a great — some say the greatest of all times, himself included — boxer, but also a smart, clever man.
This is what he said on a TV talk show in 1971:
“I always asked my mother, I said, ‘Mother, how come is everything white? Why is Jesus white with blonde hair and blue eyes? Why is the [Last] Supper all white men? Angels are white, Pope and Mary and even the angels.’ I said, ‘Mother, when we die, do we go to heaven?’ She said, ‘Naturally we go to heaven.’ I said, ‘Well, what happened to all the Black angels when they took the pictures?’
“I said, ‘Oh, I know, if the white folks were in heaven, too, then the Black angels were in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey.’ She said, ‘Listen, you stop saying that.’
“But I was always curious. And I always wondered why I had to die to go to heaven. Why couldn’t I have pretty cars and good money and nice homes now. Why do I have to wait until I die to get milk and honey? And I said, ‘Momma, I don’t want no milk and honey. I like steaks.’ I said, ‘Milk and honey’s a laxative anyway. Do they have a lot of bathrooms in heaven?’
“I said, ‘Momma, why is everything white?’ I always wondered, you know. And the president lives in the White House. And Mary had a little lamb, its fleece as white as snow, and Snow White, and everything was white. Santa Claus was white, and everything bad was Black. The little Ugly Duckling was a black duck. And the black cat was the bad luck. And if I threaten you, I’m gonna blackmail you. I said, ‘Momma, why don’t they call it whitemail? They lie, too.’
“I was always curious. And then, this is when I knew something was wrong.”
Classic Ali. He was fast and powerful with his fists and just as fast and powerful with his words, poetic even. A man for his times and a man, as he said it, of all times.
There will be some who say, “Oh, no, it’s not like that, not anymore. That was back in the ‘70s.”
We can acknowledge that increments of progress have been made toward racial equality in America, but nowhere near enough. Even that statement will anger some folks who can’t or don’t see the problems that still exist, who are yet blind to, who deny, who resist the need to push forward. That’s evidenced from the current very serious matters of brutality, to systemic racism in all its forms, to ridiculous complaints by some people that the actress in the new live-action rendition of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is Black, not white.