Category Archives: Muhammad Ali

1000 Words: Courage

The date was April 28, 1967. The site, the US Army induction center in Houston, Texas.

A 25-year-old man who was classified as 1-A by the Selective Service System had been ordered to report for induction into the army. The United States, at the time, was engaged in an undeclared war in Southeast Asia. Already by that time, tens of thousands of American soldiers had been killed in there. Tens and even hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese also had been killed. Seven years later, the United States fighting forces would withdraw from the region, and the army whom America had been fighting rapidly swept across South Vietnam, taking it over. That had been the entire raison d’être the Americans fought against them in the first place.

US embassy evacuation in Saigon, 1973.

I use the term raison d’être to make a point. It is, of course, a French phrase. The French had fought a bloody campaign in Vietnam, in the years following World War II up to July 20, 1954. France had wanted to maintain control over the country, then known as French Indochina. It was among the last vestiges of European colonialism in Asia.

The Vietnamese, for their part, wanted independence and sovereignty, a couple of qualities we Americans talk about almost religiously. We celebrate our own war for independence and sovereignty every Fourth of July. Everyone, we shout to the world, should be free and independent. Except we sent billions of dollars to the French in their effort to reign over the Vietnamese.

The French couldn’t do it. The Vietnamese were plucky, determined, disciplined, and militarily brilliant. Even though the French soldiers were well-armed and well-fed, they were beaten by a dedicated civilian army that wore sandals rather than combat boots.

French generals sneered at their counterparts in the Viet Minh, the nationalist army of Vietnam. The French considered their foes to be nothing more than a gang of peasants.

France bled, both metaphorically and actually, for years in Vietnam. Then came the denouement: Dien Bien Phu. The French garrison there was thoroughly thrashed by those so-called peasants. The men and women of the Viet Minh dug tunnels, moved through the night, and pulled heavy armor pieces by hand. They they attacked and crushed the French there.

Viet Minh soldiers overrun a French defense line at Dien Bien Phu.

Colonel Charles Piroth, who commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu and who’d crowed before the battle, “I’ve got more guns than I need,” killed himself in his bunker as the battle wound down. The entire country of France was humiliated. In July, 1954 France signed the Geneva Accords, ending hostilities and, essentially saying, you’ve won. That was a mere 13 years before the young American man appeared in the Houston induction center.

For two years, American generals similarly had looked down their noses at the Vietnamese. They told their bosses at the Pentagon and in the White House they were winning when, in reality, they were barely holding on. Already, protesters had taken to the streets to object to America’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Indiana’s Vance Hartke was the first US senator to oppose the war. Seven months after that young American man appeared in the Houston induction center, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite told his viewers:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…. To say we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

According to popular lore, President Lyndon B. Johnson was watching his Oval Office TV as Cronkite spoke those words. He remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Little more than a month later, Johnson dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.

Cronkite reports from Vietnam.

In the Houston induction office, the recruitment officer called out the young American man’s name three times. He intoned:

Muhammad Ali? Muhammad Ali? Muhammad Ali?

Three times Muhammad Ali, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, refused to acknowledge the call and step forward. Later, he told reporters:

I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…. Why should (America) ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles away and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

Muhammad Ali knew he would pay dearly for his antiwar stance. He was stripped of his championship. He was found guilty in federal court of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 (the conviction was overturned in 1971). He was denied the right to ply his trade for the next three years, losing the opportunity to earn millions of dollars. He was vilified by much of white America.

Ali, at the Houston induction center.

Yet Ali did what he thought he had to do regardless of the consequences. As did countless others who protested the Vietnam War, who agitated for civil rights, who decried wealth inequities in America and around the world.

They suffered personal and professional hardships, even prison.

Contrast their moral certitude, their confidence, their faith, with that of the three men convicted this week of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because she’d dared to order the people of her state to wear surgical masks during a global pandemic.

One of them told the judge before sentencing:

Your honor, I had a lapse in judgment. I’ve been a good citizen. I’ve been a family man.

Another said:

I sincerely regret ever allowing myself to have any affiliation with people who had those kinds of ideas.

The third said he never meant Whitmer any harm. This despite the fact that the men were members of a heavily armed radical Right Wing “militia.”

Militia members during their takeover of the Michigan state capitol, April, 2020.

The one word never used to describe the men during their entire trial was “courageous.”

Hot Air: Football & TV, A Sacred Union

Just a week ago last night one of this holy land’s cultural touchstones celebrated its 50th anniversary. Hard to believe for a lot of people of my generation (and older) but Monday Night Football first aired on ABC-TV September 21, 1970. Since then the network television colossus has presented somewhere in the vicinity of 700 football games.

Joe Namath Calls the Signals During the First Monday Night Football Game.

Funny thing was, no network really wanted any part of it. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle went begging to the three main networks at the time — CBS, NBC, and ABC — and came away with an empty hat. None of the nets wanted to mess up its regular prime time schedule, especially on a Monday night when middle class America began settling in for the week in front of their TVs after work. ABC in 1970 was the lowest rated of the three networks so Rozelle hammered hard at it. He told ABC honchos he was prepared to sell the idea of prime time football to the Hughes Television Network, an independent entity dreamed up by wealthy loon Howard Hughes who’d envisioned it as a fourth player in the coast-to-coast TV scene. Just a couple of years before, Hughes had tried to purchase a controlling stake in ABC and was rebuffed, leading him to want to stick it to the company. ABC, afraid it might even be overtaken by the nascent Hughes operation, grudgingly signed a contract with the NFL and threw together a trio of booth announcers, a novel idea. for the first game.

One of those announcers was a lawyer from New York City named Howard Cosell, a loud, annoying, tell-it-like-it-is kind of a guy who’d ridden the coattails of a young Cassius Clay. In 1960 Clay (later, Muhammad Ali) won the heavyweight boxing gold medal at the Rome Olympics. Cosell’s announcing of his subsequent professional bouts made him as famous as the fighter. Cosell’s Wikipedia page describes him thusly:

Cosell’s style of reporting transformed sports broadcasting in the United States. Whereas previous sportcasters had mostly been known for color commentary and lively play-by-play, Cosell had an intellectual approach. His use of analysis and context brought television sports reporting closer to “hard” news reporting. However, his distinctive staccato voice, accent, syntax, and cadence were a form of color commentary all their own.

Funny thing was viewers hated Cosell. I mean they despised him. Many Monday Night Football tavern parties turned into Cosell bash-fests. One bar owner in Denver even sponsored contests to allow a weekly winner to throw a brick through the TV when Cosell appeared on the screen.

Ali Attempts to LIft Cosell’s Toupee off His Head.

Monday Night Football creator and executive producer Roone Arledge realized viewers’ antipathy toward Cosell just might draw even more of them. Rather than axe Cosell, Arledge instructed him to be…, well, more himself. The more Cosell played Cosell, the more people tuned in. Eventually, Monday Night Football became the most watched prime time show on television for many years.

It’s a bizarro world story, one that would be inconceivable even a year before it began to play out. But the country had just emerged from the topsy-turvy Sixties, an era when many cherished American institutions were mocked and discarded. So, tens of millions of male football fans — as well as their girlfriends, wives, and sisters — tuned in to see if they could get in on the hate orgy.

Nearly Half of All NFL Fans Are Female.

And that’s another shibboleth Monday Night Football laid to rest — that the gridiron game was solely played for the pleasure of men. Before Rozelle, Arledge, and Cosell, the game was played on Sunday afternoons to a TV audience almost exclusively male. The term “football widow” described women who couldn’t get their husbands to do anything other than park themselves in their dens and watch the Giants or the Bears or the Colts. After the trio worked its magic, football watching became the province of a more balanced gender viewership.

Me? I’ve never given a good goddamn about football, either the pro or the college game. Oh sure, I know who the great stars were and occasionally have enjoyed watching highlights of pigskin wizards like Joe Montana or Lawrence Taylor but ask me who won what game yesterday and I’ll sit there with a blank look on my face.

In fact, The Loved One and I had a tradition every Super Bowl Sunday of driving down to Jasper, Indiana to have a cone at an old-fashioned ice cream shop on the west side of the square there. Sadly, that ice cream parlor — I seem to recall it being named Libby’s — closed down before the 2020 Super Bowl so we’ll have to come up with a new tradition.

Anyway, we could do that because the streets of America are pretty much deserted on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon and evening. It’s as though we have the whole nation to ourselves.

Truth is football is the quintessential American sport. And only the Hallmark Hall of Fame drama anthology program has run longer on prime time television.

Charlotte’s Memoir

Copies of Minister’s Daughter: One Life, Many Lives, by Charlotte Zietlow and me have begun to arrive at the Book Corner. The book’s flying off the shelves so far. Call the store at 812.339.1522 or email me at to order your copy today.

And you can always cop an e-book copy via Amazon. But, really, wouldn’t you rather have a good old hard copy in your hands?

The Pencil Today:


“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” — Muhammad Ali


I love science and I love baseball. So what could be better than this recent edition of “What If?” (h/t to Al Yellon at Bleed Cubbie Blue.)

“WI?” is a weekly feature of the very cool XKCD site. It is described thusly: “Answering your hypothetical questions with physics, every Tuesday.”

Sort of a super-brain’s New York Times Science Tuesday.

So, this week’s hypothetical is “What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90% the speed of light?”

Not Even The Cuban Missile, Aroldis Chapman, Can Throw That Fast

As you know, the speed of light is unimaginably fast, almost as fast as Regina Moore‘s crew of  parking ticket scribblers (and, yeah, I’m sitting on a double-sawbuck scold slip from Friday, so that’s why the Moore Militia is on my mind.)

Anyway, you couldn’t begin to guess what would happen in such a hyper-fastball scenario unless you’d spent the last 15 years of your life holed up working out ciphers and avoiding any meaningful contact with the opposite sex.

Suffice it to say if a human baseball pitcher had the physical capability to accelerate an approximately 3-inch-diameter spheroid made of horsehide wrapped around coiled yarn centered on a cork core to a velocity of around 167,653.8 miles per hour (the speed of light, c, times .9), the immediate vicinity around the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box would be transformed indeed.

As in, oh, say, Hiroshima at 8:16 am, August 6th, 1945.

Hit By Pitch, Batter Entitled To First Base

The happy news is the team at bat now has a rally going.

Who sez science isn’t fun?


Am I gonna have to make this a regular feature?

Last week I ran a screed about the gossipy, reality-show-like news that CNN has been foisting upon the public during these momentous times.

Wars, the potential for economic collapse, dramatic global climate change events, and even the political fight over women’s wombs all seem to be below-the-fold fodder for cable TV’s most venerable news outfit.

Yeah, It’s Dry — Hey, Did That Magazine Really Photoshop Kate Middleton?

At the time, I didn’t think CNN’s editorial choices could get any more ludicrous.

I was wrong.

These are among the most important happenings and issues on planet Earth within the last 24 hours, according to the Cable News Network of Atlanta, USA:

  • Billionaire’s son charged in wife’s death
  • Shark attacks: Is “Jaws” back?
  • Mash up: Jealousy in time of drought
  • Obamas find spotlight on “kiss cam”
  • New diet drug approved by FDA
  • Car falls into elevator shaft
  • Sex with ex helps her lose weight
  • It may be OK to get sick in July
  • Bobcat breaks into prison
  • Michael Vick: I won’t get a pit bull
  • Tattoos: How young is too young?
  • Stunt driver’s video goes viral
  • Parents, let your kids play
  • Daughter’s in love, Dad feels jilted

Now not only are CNN’s stories vacuous, they’re getting downright creepy. I mean, honestly, “Dad feels jilted”?

Sorta reminds me of Cary Grant as the newspaper publisher Walter Burns, shouting orders on the phone to his editors in “His Girl Friday.” (Please click — it’s the entire movie.)

No, no, never mind the Chinese earthquake for heaven’s sake….

Look, I don’t care if there’s a million dead….

No, no, junk the Polish Corridor….

Take all those Miss America pictures off Page Six….

Take Hitler and stick him on the funny page….

No, no, leave the rooster story alone — that’s human interest.

Of course, that was farce. How, then, to describe CNN?


Huzzah. Three cheers. Science has developed yet another weight-loss drug.

Just in case you’re tempted to swallow it, take some advice from a man whose girth rivals that of a cement mixer.


The only “secret” for losing weight is eat less and exercise more.

End of sermon.


Finally, speaking of things that go boom, wait’ll you see this vid.

Apparently, the government of this holy land became concerned in the 1950s about the citizenry’s troublesome fears of nuclear annihilation. And, if we weren’t experiencing existential angst over the end of civilization, we were fretting at the very least that a nearby nuclear explosion might muss up our hair.

Ergo, the feds put together some propaganda to dispel such silly talk.

Like this:

Yup. The five knuckleheads clustered underneath the unleashing of the primal forces of the universe actually volunteered to do so. As in, “Sure, I’ll do it. Why not?”

Presumably, they kissed their wives and children goodbye before they dashed off to work that day.

Of even greater fascination is the reaction of the voiceover announcer, who also was present. I’d swear the man is experiencing an orgasm.

Electron Pencil event listings: Music, art, movies, lectures, parties, receptions, games, benefits, plays, meetings, fairs, conspiracies, rituals, etc.

◗ IU Dowling International CenterEnglish Conversation Club, for non-native speakers of American English; 1pm

Monroe County Public Library“It’s Your Money: Wi$eMoney Game Night,” for ages 15-18; 6:30-8:30pm

◗ IU Musical Arts CenterSummer Arts Festival: Outdoor band concert with conductor Stephen Pratt; 7pm

Max’s PlaceOpen mic; 7:30pm

◗ IU Wells-Metz TheatreMusical, “You Can’t Take It with You”; 7:30pm

The Player’s PubStardusters; 7:30pm

The Comedy AtticBloomington Comedy Festival; 8pm

Boys & Girls Club of BloomingtonContra dancing; 8pm

The BluebirdThe Personnel; 9pm

Bear’s PlaceYou & All the Blind People; 9pm

The BishopMurals, The Natives, Chandelier Ballroom; 9pm

◗ IU Kirkwood ObservatoryFree public viewing through the main telescope; 10pm


◗ Ivy Tech Waldron CenterExhibits:

  • John D. Shearer, “I’m Too Young For This  @#!%”; through July 30th
  • Claire Swallow, ‘Memoir”; through July 28th
  • Dale Gardner, “Time Machine”; through July 28th
  • Sarah Wain, “That Takes the Cake”; through July 28th
  • Jessica Lucas & Alex Straiker, “Life Under the Lens — The Art of Microscopy”; through July 28th

◗ IU Art MuseumExhibits:

  • Qiao Xiaoguang, “Urban Landscape: A Selection of Papercuts” ; through August 12th
  • “A Tribute to William Zimmerman,” wildlife artist; through September 9th
  • Willi Baumeister, “Baumeister in Print”; through September 9th
  • Annibale and Agostino Carracci, “The Bolognese School”; through September 16th
  • “Contemporary Explorations: Paintings by Contemporary Native American Artists”; through October 14th
  • David Hockney, “New Acquisitions”; through October 21st
  • Utagawa Kuniyoshi, “Paragons of Filial Piety”; through fall semester 2012
  • Julia Margaret Cameron, Edward Weston, & Harry Callahan, “Intimate Models: Photographs of Husbands, Wives, and Lovers”; through December 31st
  • “French Printmaking in the Seventeenth Century”; through December 31st

◗ IU SoFA Grunwald GalleryExhibits:

  • Kinsey Institute Juried Art Show; through July 21st
  • Bloomington Photography Club Annual Exhibition; July 27th through August 3rd

◗ IU Kinsey Institute Gallery“Ephemeral Ink: Selections of Tattoo Art from the Kinsey Institute Collection”; through September 21st

◗ IU Lilly LibraryExhibit, “Translating the Canon: Building Special Collections in the 21st Century”; through September 1st

◗ IU Mathers Museum of World Cultures — Closed for semester break

Monroe County History Center Exhibits:

  • “What Is Your Quilting Story?”; through July 31st
  • Photo exhibit, “Bloomington: Then and Now” by Bloomington Fading; through October 27th

The Pencil Today:


“I love America more than any other country in this world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” — James Baldwin


I didn’t want to make a big deal of this yesterday mainly because I painted a less-than flattering portrait of the American Dream — on the Fourth of July, no less.

I didn’t want it to appear as though I were piling on.

It strikes me, though, that the vast majority of people we celebrate on the anniversary of this holy land’s birth seem to be soldiers.

Military Vehicles In A Fourth Of July Parade

Several of my most loyal readers are proud former soldiers so I don’t mean to insult them. One was in the regular Army and served in Iraq. Another was a Marine officer. Others served in the National Guard and the reserves. Much as I hate to admit it, there’s a need for people who are willing to go out and kill other people for the sake of the country. I’m glad there are plenty of people who can do that; I know I couldn’t have.

I’d have refused induction, deserted, or been thrown in the brig had I been drafted during the Vietnam era.

One of the most heroic acts in American history, I feel, was the stance Muhammad Ali took when he got his “Greetings” letter from the Selective Service System. He chucked his lucrative career as a world champion boxer, reported to his induction center, and refused to say “Here” when his name was called.

Muhammad Ali After He Refused Induction Into the Army

He explained: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.” Later he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from my home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

My own reasons for not wanting to fire deadly weapons at the Vietnamese included my refusal to participate in what I knew to be an arrogant, wrong-headed war, one that could only have been waged by a people who felt superior to all the other peoples on this weird, weird planet. That and the fact that I believe it is a superlative accomplishment to go through this mad life without killing, maiming, or otherwise injuring another human.

Sometimes, sure, there’s a need to kill another. Studs Terkel had the right idea when he entitled his oral history of Word War II, “The Good War.”

Somebody Had To Clobber These Dopes

You’ll note that there wasn’t as broad an epidemic of mental illness among the veterans of that war. Certainly the people who had to blow the brains out of Nazis and Japanese suffered emotionally and psychologically. But so many of the veterans of Vietnam, Iraq I & II, and Afghanistan have suffered profound emotional torture upon their return to this country.

Why? Perhaps because World War II veterans understood that they were fighting for a righteous cause. That can go a long way toward ameliorating one’s psychic fallout after participating in the brutality of war.

World War II vets could say to themselves, “I had to kill bad guys.”

What can the veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom say to console him or herself?


So, I’m not unmindful of the role the armed services have played in the existence of these United States.

On the Fourth of July, though, you can be excused for thinking the only people who have meant anything to this nation’s existence were soldiers.

Let’s not forget people who didn’t have to blow people’s brains out for the good of their country:

  • Jane Addams — Philosopher, sociologist, and settlement worker, she founded Hull House
  • Roger Baldwin — Co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union with Crystal Eastman and Walter Nelles
  • Ella Baker — Co-founder with Bayard Rustin of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Martin Luther King, Jr. was president, she also helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
  • Daisy Gatson Bates — Journalist, led the effort to desegregate Little Rock schools after the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision

Daisy Gatson Bates

  • Philip and Daniel Berrigan — Catholic priests and radical anti-war protesters during the Vietnam Era.
  • Nellie Bly — Undercover journalist, exposed conditions for the poor and marginalized people
  • Rachel Carson — Wrote “Silent Spring,” awakening the nation to the threat of environmental pollution
  • William Sloane Coffin — President of SANE/Freeze, anti-war activist, civil rights advocate, gay rights supporter
  • Dorothea Dix — Fought for insane asylum, poorhouse, and prison reforms

Dorothea Dix

  • WEB DuBois — Co-founder of the NAACP, the first black to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, an educator, author, historian, sociologist, philosopher, and poet
  • Marian Wright Edelman — Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and civil rights activist
  • Barbara Ehrenreich — Investigative, undercover journalist who exposes corporate and employer abuses as well as poverty conditions
  • Daniel Ellsberg — Delivered The Pentagon Papers to the New York Times
  • Matthew Gaines — A former slave, freedmen leader, and state senator, he helped establish free public schools in Texas
  • William Lloyd Garrison — Abolitionist, advocated women’s suffrage, co-founded the American Anti-Slavery Society
  • Alex Haley — Authored “Roots: The Saga of an American Family”
  • Mary Harris “Mother” Jones — Labor and community organizer, co-founded Industrial Workers of the World

“Mother” Jones

  • Seymour Hersh — Investigative journalist, exposed the My Lai Massacre as well as many government abuses
  • Hubert H. Humphrey — Forced the Democratic Party to adopt a civil rights platform at the 1948 national convention
  • Robert La Follette Sr. — Progressive senator, fought against the corporatocracy, an unapologetic liberal

“Fightin’ Bob” La Follette

  • Malcolm X — Grew to reject violence and separatism in the fight for civil rights
  • Biddy Mason — A freed slave, became a wealthy entrepreneur, donated huge amounts to charities
  • Lucretia Mott — Helped organize the Women’s Rights Convention, her home was an Underground Railroad station
  • Ralph Nader — Consumer advocate, fought against the corporatocracy
  • A. Philip Randolph — Labor leader, civil rights advocate
  • Bayard Rustin — Civil rights advocate who help organize civil disobedience protests, espoused nonviolence and pacifism, advocated for gay rights

Bayard Rustin

  • Mario Savio — Free speech advocate
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton — Advocate for women’s rights, abolitionist, universal suffragist
  • I.F. Stone — Independent investigative journalist, exposed racism within the FBI, revealed South Korean instigation of hostilities prior to the Korean War
  • Lucy Stone — Advocate for women’s rights, abolitionist
  • Sojourner Truth — Abolitionist and supporter of women’s rights
  • Howard Zinn — Iconoclastic historian, insisted on telling Americans what we’ve been rather than what we wish we were.

Electron Pencil event listings: Music, art, movies, lectures, parties, receptions, games, benefits, plays, meetings, fairs, conspiracies, rituals, etc.

◗ IU Theater AnnexChildren’s musical,  “The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs,” presented by Indiana Festival Theater; 11am

Monroe County Public Library“What It Was Like,” Fairview Elementary alumni share reminiscences of the school from the 30s-70s; 4-6pm

Bear’s PlaceDavid Linard Trio; 5:30pm

David Linard

Muddy Boots Cafe, Nashville — Kara Barnard & Chuck Willis; 6pm

Third Street ParkOutdoor concert, Hungry Dog Blues Band featuring Snarlyn Carlyn Lindsay; 6:30pm

The Player’s Pub The Blue Rivieras; 6:30pm

◗ IU Wells-Metz Theatre“The Taming of the Shrew”; 7:30pm

Cafe Django“Singing to Katmandu,” fundraiser for BloomingtonKatmandu exhibit featurng local artists and musicians; 7:30pm

The Comedy AtticRyan Singer; 8pm

◗ IU Auer Hall, Simon Music Library — “Quattro Mani,” Alice Rybak and Susan Grace perform Creston, Beach, Rzewski, Bowles, Bolcom, & Hovhaness; 8pm

Alice Rybak

Serendipity Martini BarTeam trivia; 8:30pm

Max’s PlaceBluegrass, New Old Calvary; 9pm


◗ Ivy Tech Waldron CenterExhibit, “I’m Too Young For This  @#!%” by John D. Shearer; through July 30th

◗ IU Art MuseumExhibit, “Urban Landscape: A Selection of Papercuts by Qiao Xiaoguang; through August 12th — Exhibit, wildlife artist William Zimmerman; through September 9th — Exhibit, David Hockney, new acquisitions; through October 21st

◗ IU SoFA Grunwald GalleryKinsey Institute Juried Art Show; through July 21st, 11am

Monroe County History CenterPhoto exhibit, “Bloomington: Then and Now” by Bloomington Fading; through October 27th

The Pencil Today:


“Let us go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.” — Grace Paley


One of the most overused terms in sports is courage. A guy hits a single in the bottom of the ninth to win a baseball game for his team and the announcers gasp and coo that’s he’s exhibited an uncommon amount of courage.

Or the plucky college basketball team beats the number one team in the nation which, as we all know, happened a little more than a month ago right here in Bloomington. Sure enough, the announcers and the next day’s sports columnists all agreed: that plucky team was very courageous.

I call bullshit.


There was only one truly courageous professional athlete I’ve ever seen. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, 70 years ago today.

We know him as Muhammad Ali.

I’ve never given a damn about professional boxing. It’s a cruel sport. It’s nothing more than sanctioned assault and battery performed for the pleasure of the slobs who pay to watch.

Men batter each others’ brains into mush so promoters and TV execs can make millions.

You can have it.

But I was always a fan of Muhammad Ali. He was the first jock to understand that what he was doing, first and foremost, was entertaining.

“Float like a butterfly,” he said, “sting like a bee.”


“I am the greatest,” he proclaimed. “I said that even before I knew I was.”


“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me,” he said.


Muhammad Ali was strong. Muhammad Ali spent months training for a fight. Muhammad Ali endured blows that would disable or kill you and me. Muhammad Ali beat up dozens of men in the ring.

But nothing he did was courageous until he started looking at the question of black and white in America.

“Boxing,” he said, “is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”

No social commentator has ever uttered or typed a line with such clarity and perspicacity on the topic of race in America.

When he first became boxing’s champion, he had reached the pinnacle of all that a black man could achieve in this holy land. He knew it wasn’t enough.

“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell,” he said, “but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”

Still going by the name Clay, he and Martin Luther King, Jr. were the most famous black men in the world. He was wealthy. What man would jeopardize that?

He did. Racism in America so disgusted him that he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964. He changed his name to Ali.

Ali With Malcolm X

All those white men watching him beat up another black men weren’t going to like that one bit. Muhammad Ali instantly became the man they loved to hate.

What professional athlete today would put at risk even one commercial shoot to breathe a word about freedom or race or poverty?

Muhammad Ali had work to do — work much more important than mashing the brains of another black man for the amusement of white men.

America’s Vietnam War was disposing of thousands of human beings a week. It was fought, disproportionately, by America’s blacks.

In 1966, when Ali was classified 1-A by the Selective Service System, he opted for courage.

He was ordered to report to the Army’s induction center in Houston in April, 1967. When the induction officer called his name, Ali refused to respond.

He could have run to Canada, as many young men were doing back then. He could have joined the National Guard, as many pro athletes were doing at the time as well. Joining the National Guard was a way of avoiding service in the regular Army and, consequently, being sent to Southeast Asia.

He’d chosen neither of those ways out.

Three times the induction officer called his name. Three times he stood tall and silent. Finally the officer warned him that refusing to respond was a felony punishable by five years in prison.

Ali remained mum.

He would say later, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.”

Which, by the way, was now the preferred appellation for him among so many of those white men who formerly enjoyed watching him beat up another black man.

Ali was immediately arrested and charged. He was found guilty by a jury two months later. He’d been stripped of his championship title by boxing’s regulating authorities the day he was arrested.

Ali Photographed By Gordon Parks During His Exile From Boxing

He gave up his career and his freedom and put his fortune at risk, all for something he believed in.

Something he believed in.

Which sports celebrity today believes in anything?

Which American today would risk a nickel on something he or she believes in?

It all turned out well for Muhammad Ali, of course. His conviction was overturned by the US Supreme Court. He was allowed to compete for the heavywieght title again and he won it back.

In his doddering years, he has become this nation’s kindly, lovable grandpa. When he dies, politicians and wags will fall all over each other trying to be the first to say what a great man he was.

But on April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali had no idea that would happen.

He only knew his public opposition to the Vietnam War was worth risking everything he had.

That was courage.

Today: Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I’ve been a union supporter all my life.

Heck, I became a union guy just a few months after graduating high school. See, I knew I was too much of a rebel/hood/knucklehead to succeed in college at the tender age of eighteen so I wisely deferred my higher education for a couple of years.

I went out to work instead. Took a job with the City of Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation. My clout was 36th Ward Democratic Committeeman Louie Garippo.

In Chicago back in the 70s, if you wanted work for the City, you first had to go see your clout (also known as your Chinaman) and promise you’d do everything in the world to help him get out the vote in exchange for his sponsorship. I vowed to stand on my head, if need be, to get Mayor Daley (the First) reelected — oh, and whoever else might be running on the Dem slate in future elections.

During our interview, Louie Garippo got a dreamy look in his eye and said, “We’re gonna take back the White House next year.”

I nodded. The presidential election of 1976 would be the first in which I could vote. I couldn’t wait. I had no idea who I wanted but I knew for an iron-clad fact it wasn’t Gerald R. Ford. Yeesh.

Garripo went on. “If all goes well, we’ll have another one of the Kennedy boys in there.” Louie looked me in the eye. “You know,” he said, “your mother loved Jack Kennedy.”

Ma Loved Him

I nodded again. “Okay,” Louie said, “here’s what you do. You go see Elmer Fillipini tomorrow at 9:00am. Ya got that? Do not be late. He’ll tell you what to do.” Fillipini was the supervisor of the 36th Ward Streets & San office.

Louie wasn’t finished with me, though. “And do me a favor,” he said. “Get a haircut, fer chrissakes. You look like one’a them goddamn hippies. You’ll make your mother happy.”

I got up to leave and we shook hands. As I was walking out the door, he tossed another caveat my way.

“Remember,” he said, “don’t embarrass me.”

I nodded a third time.

At 9:05 the next morning I was filling out my first union card. The Laborers Union. Very, very cozy with The Boss, Daley. Not that we would suffer for the coziness; not even out of my teens, I would be making more money than my old man. When I told him what I was going to earn an hour, daddy-o actually got a hurt look in his eye. I always felt bad about that.

Anyway, The mayoral primary of 1975 was coming up fast. Renegade alderman Bill Singer was running against The Boss. Singer and his pals like the Rev. Jesse Jackson had already beaten Mayor Daley in a battle three years before. Singer, Jackson, et al successfully ousted Daley and the his Machine cronies from the 1972 Democratic National Convention. The one that nominated George McGovern to run that November. You remember McGovern, don’t you? Lost the election in one of the greatest landslides in history. Couldn’t even carry his own state.

So, Singer had decided to take on Daley in the primary. He was young. He was a rebel. He had longish hair. He hung out with brothers. As far as I was concerned, he was perfect. I started wearing a Singer lapel button — to work.

Not smart. Elmer Filippini called me in to his office for a private meeting. He wasn’t happy.

“Dontchu care about yer job?” he snapped.

I shrugged. My only regret was that I was embarrassing Louie Garippo.

I lasted three months in that job — not because Elmer or Louie forced me out but because I was an irresponsible lunkhead.

Believe it or not, I grew up. I eventually got into the writing and journalism rackets. Joined more unions. The National Writers Union and the Newspaper Guild.

Reporters On Strike, 1964

To this day I’m always on the side of the unions. I don’t like bullies. Management always seems to be the bully.

The highest-profile labor dispute going on right now in this holy land is the National Basketball Association lockout. In an industry raking in a couple of billion dollars a year, labor and management can’t figure out how to slice up the pie.

Billionaire jerks fighting with millionaire jerks over a few bucks.

Still, I’m steadfast behind the National Basketball Players Association. Management, remember, is always the bully. Even if the players are jerks.

Gotta tell you, though, there are a lot of folks suffering over this. Some of our friends in Indy are trying to figure out how to buy Christmas presents this year. Heck, some of them might be trying to figure out how to pay the rent.

Hot dog vendors. Jersey hawkers. Ushers. Ticket sellers. Beer pushers. Loads of people who consider themselves extremely fortunate when they bring home a hundred dollars after a Pacers game.

No Games, No Hungry Fans, No Pay

The NBA last year paid out $800 million to its wage slaves on the gym floor. That constituted 57 percent of all basketball related revenues for the season, meaning the owners claim to have pocketed some $600 million. The NBPA claims the owners are fudging their books. I’d bet they are. You don’t get rich enough to own a major league sports franchise by possessing the morals of a Boy Scout.

There’s a lot of cash up for grabs in this fight. But there isn’t enough for a hot dog vendor to splurge on Christmas this year.


Speaking of elections, the honorable Regina Moore bounced into The Book Corner last week to stock up on reading material. The city’s parking ticket boss immediately got into a conversation with a young woman who still sported Hallowe’en-themed nail polish.

The two batted around the topic of nail painting for a few minutes then I asked Moore how she was feeling about today’s election. “I feel good about it,” Moore said. “I think we’re gonna be okay.”

Bloomington City Clerk Regina Moore

I told her I was happy she seemed so confident. Then it hit me. “Hey, wait a minute,” I said. “Is anyone running against you?”

“No,” Regina Moore said.

Nor is anyone running against incumbent Mayor Mark Kruzan.

Democracy, Bloomington style. Ya gotta love it.

Still, get out there and vote. It’s the least you can do.


Smokin’ Joe Frazier took a ten-count last night. The former heavyweight boxing champ died after a bout with cancer.

I’ve got to admit I never cared for Frazier. Not for anything he did or the kind of man he was. It was just that he was the guy who knocked one of the heroes of my youth to the canvas back in 1971. Frazier was the first man to hang an L on Muhammad Ali, besting him in 15 rounds at Madison Square Garden that year.

Frazier Labels Ali In One Of Their Three Fights

I loved Ali. I couldn’t have cared less about boxing but I embraced Ali because he had the cagliones to refuse to be inducted into the Army after being drafted in 1967. He risked everything for his beliefs. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong,” Ali famously said. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

Plus, Ali was a poet and a showman. Had he been a run-of-the-mill pug, I wouldn’t have given him a second thought. But, because he raged against The Man, I elevated him to my sports pantheon, which also included Curt Flood, Jim Bouton, Dick Allen, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Arms Upraised

Ali came back from his exile from the sport and won back the title. Then Frazier outpointed him. I moaned, Who the hell is Joe Frazier, anyway?

Now, no Vietcong ever called Muhammad Ali nigger, but Ali called Joe Frazier a “gorilla” prior to one of the bouts, the three of which have become almost mythic battles. Frazier was deeply hurt by the epithet. Ali also called him an “Uncle Tom” and “ugly.” Frazier’s manager told him to pay Ali no mind, that “The Greatest” was only hyping their match.

Frazier said, Maybe, but how would you like your kid to come home from school and tell you the kids had been calling him “gorilla” and “Uncle Tom”?

I hope to learn that Ali apologized to Frazier before last night. He’d be a hero again for me.

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