Having just been to see Race, the (rather boring, I have to say) bio-pic about the great African American athlete, Jesse Owens, I found myself thinking about people like Owens, and Joe Louis, and contrasting them with Muhammad Ali. How many people recall Owens and his achievements at the 1936 Olympics – four golds, three individual (100 and 200 metres and long jump) and one team (4×100 metre relay)? Or the fact that two other African Americans, John Woodruff and Archie Williams won gold in the 400 metres and high jump respectively? Of course Owens defied and triumphed over Nazi ideology, but he subsequently vanished from the public eye, played no role in civil rights campaigns and was very critical of the black power protest at the 1968 Mexico Olympics of Tommy Smith and John Carlos.
Similarly, Joe Louis who defended his world heavy weight boxing title over a twelve year period and ranked with Ali as one of the greatest boxers of all time, played no great role in the civil rights campaigns. He was schooled in playing a role acceptable to whites – not to boast, always be polite, not to be seen with white women. He served in the segregated army during World War II and featured in various war posters and films – despite the prejudice of the times.
Owens and Louis were of course, alive in different times – when African Americans were still lynched, segregated, and discriminated against at all levels of society. It could be argued that the Sixties were different and that Ali emerged in a time of great change – nevertheless, it took some courage for him to challenge not just opponents in the ring, but also the white boxing and political establishments. That is why he was “the Greatest” and is remembered today in a way Owens and Louis were not. Both, however, were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – after their deaths. They had lived in different times, but were also different personalities.