A strug­gle greater than any fight in the ring

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Sunni M Khalid

Sting Like a Bee: Muham­mad Ali vs the United States of Amer­ica, 1966-1971 by Leigh Montville Dou­ble­day, 354pp

In Sting Like a Bee, Leigh Montville fo­cuses on a trans­for­ma­tive fiveyear pe­riod in the life of Muham­mad Ali when the heavy­weight cham­pion strug­gled as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor to the Viet­nam war; lost his box­ing li­cence, forc­ing his ex­ile from the sport; re­jected his “slave name,” Cas­sius Clay; and pledged him­self to the Na­tion of Is­lam un­der the name Muham­mad Ali.

The book be­gins in 1966, two years after Ali snatched the heavy­weight ti­tle from Sonny Lis­ton, and takes read­ers through the 1971 supreme court de­ci­sion re­vers­ing his draft-dodg­ing con­vic­tion. Montville does an ex­cel­lent job of cap­tur­ing the chang­ing mood of the times, from the Amer­i­can pub­lic’s sup­port of the Viet­nam war, fear of the Na­tion of Is­lam and vil­i­fi­ca­tion of Ali to its grad­ual shift against the con­flict and sub­se­quent ac­cep­tance of Ali as a mar­tyr and hero.

The au­thor re­lies on a range of sources, in­clud­ing the vi­brant black press of the time, with publi­ca­tions such as Ebony mag­a­zine and the Chicago De­fender. The re­sult is a bal­anced nar­ra­tive that en­com­passes the civil rights move­ment, its black power off­shoot and the grow­ing anti-war move­ment. Montville delves into court doc­u­ments and FBI files to re­count Ali’s wind­ing and of­ten con­vo­luted le­gal bat­tle and ap­peal of his con­vic­tion.

Read­ers also get rare glimpses into Ali’s pri­vate life, much of which has pre­vi­ously been glossed over or ig­nored. The most valu­able in­sights come from his sec­ond wife, Belinda Boyd, who changed her name to Khalilah Ca­ma­cho-Ali. Montville con­ducted ex­ten­sive in­ter­views with Ca­ma­choAli, who mar­ried Ali at age 17, shortly after he was stripped of his box­ing li­cence.

A com­pelling por­trait emerges of Ali court­ing Ca­ma­cho-Ali and be­hav­ing as a young hus­band. Through Ca­ma­cho-Ali, Montville de­picts Ali at a cross­roads, fac­ing the prospect of prison and try­ing to re­main loyal to the dic­tates of Na­tion of Is­lam leader Eli­jah Muham­mad, while still pin­ing to re­turn to the ring. We see the cou­ple driv­ing across the coun­try to Ali’s univer­sity speak­ing en­gage­ments, which sup­ported him and his ex­pand­ing fam­ily. In one sur­pris­ing scene, Ali and Ca­ma­cho-Ali stop for gas in ru­ral Alabama and are treated to south­ern hos­pi­tal­ity when strangers give them boxes of fried chicken for their jour­ney. Be­fore they de­part, Ali is asked by a starstruck group of hill­bil­lies and red­necks to sign au­to­graphs on mag­a­zines and pieces of toi­let pa­per. Ca­ma­cho-Ali also pro­vides an un­flat­ter­ing ac­count of Ali’s mar­i­tal in­fi­deli­ties.

Aside from re­veal­ing some of Ali’s per­sonal foibles, Montville shows how he be­gan to evolve in­tel­lec­tu­ally. He em­braced the doc­trine of the Na­tion of Is­lam, which re­jected not only the war in Viet­nam but racial in­te­gra­tion. Within a short time, how­ever, the charis­matic Ali be­gan to ex­press more orig­i­nal thoughts on the war.

As rev­e­la­tory as Montville’s book is, it has some short­com­ings. While the au­thor de­scribes Ali’s de­vo­tion to the Na­tion of Is­lam and the teach­ings of Eli­jah Muham­mad, he un­earths no new ground on the in­ner work­ings of the move­ment. A deeper ex­am­i­na­tion is war­ranted for the Na­tion of Is­lam’s in­flu­ence on Ali’s de­ci­sion to refuse in­duc­tion into the Army. None­the­less, Sting Like a Bee is a valu­able, in­deed es­sen­tial, ad­di­tion to the grow­ing li­brary on Ali, of­fer­ing a broader un­der­stand­ing of the enigma known as The Great­est.

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