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OpEd: Ali Stood for Principle Despite Costs, a Lesson for Today’s Politicians

They were gone in an hour. All 15,000 tickets to Friday’s public memorial service for Muhammad Ali in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., were gone that quickly. Lines stretched around the block, with the crowd shouting “Ali” when the box office opened on Wednesday, a tribute to the spirit of a man whose boxing career was finished before some in the line were born.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), in introducing a resolution this week honoring the life and legacy of Ali, called him “a great American” and “a true champion for humanity,” whose “talents transcended the ring into the global community where he selflessly put the interests of helping others above his own.” Butterfield’s resolution said Ali “stood on principle to end racism and bigotry.”

Louisville Remembers Ali 1:55

Principled is not what anyone would call the words and actions this week from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a recently declared supporter of Donald Trump, to lead the Republican Party presidential ticket in November. Ryan called Trump’s based-on-ethnicity attack on an American judge of Mexican descent hearing a case against Trump University the “textbook definition of a racist comment." Then he said he is still in Trump’s corner.

Watch Republicans duck, bob and weave more than Ali in his prime, as they throw their grudging support to presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump while dodging questions about his divisive pronouncements, and you won’t see many profiles in courage on display.

Muhammad Ali, who died at the age of 74, last December showed a different way to deal with Trump’s words. In a statement after the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., that killed 14 people titled “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States,” Ali said: “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is."

Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X
Muhammad Ali, world heavyweight boxing champion, right, stands with Malcolm X outside the Trans-Lux Newsreel Theater in New York on March 1, 1964. AP file

Though Trump has said his friend Ali’s statement was not about him, it was a reminder that Parkinson’s may have affected the former heavyweight champion’s ability to speak, but it could not silence him.

Ali earned global acclaim and respect for his stands, but he paid a high price. He lived long enough to become a beloved icon, long enough to light the Olympic flame and be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, placed around his neck by President George W. Bush. But during Ali’s life and career, he was denounced, reviled and hated, as well.

RELATED: 'Blood Brothers': The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X

The attacks came when he converted to the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, when he embarked on global missions to countries in the Muslim world that some in America distrusted and especially when he refused for religious reasons to be inducted into the military during the Vietnam War.

His earnings shrunk down to nothing, he lost prime boxing years and his prestige and popularity tumbled. It took courage for this imperfect human being to stand by sincerely held, unpopular beliefs. Eventually, even many of those who wrote him off at the time came to admire that strength.

As has been said since his death, that quality, as well as his generosity of spirit and philanthropy, is what made him an inspiration, including in countries where he was the only American anyone recognized. In the coverage of his death, it’s amazing to learn how many children around the world carry his name.

Image:
In this photo taken June 2, 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during a rally in San Jose, Calif. Jae C. Hong / AP

Ali told the world he was “the greatest” at a time when proclaiming such pride – black pride – with confidence and brio was downright dangerous. Though he had the charm to pull off the outrageous, people of color in America and around the world – the ones without that power, position and platform -- saw the steel beneath the smile and felt kinship and support.

“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life,” he said.

Now, Republican politicians with a lot on the line are struggling, trying to figure out how to keep Trump's supporters without taking on the candidate's noxious views. A few – such as former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and a few other GOP notables - have withheld their support. But others, facing an electorate that has put Trump on top, are hedging. You can see it and hear it. Standing for something might make them lose too much.

In Arizona, John McCain is running a tough race to retain his Senate seat. He is uneasily supporting a man who insulted him and the other veterans who survived years in captivity, as well as those who did not make it back home. While Paul Ryan has also come around to Trump-world, as pretty much everyone knew he would, it’s doubtful we may ever see a photo of the two in a warm embrace.

At every campaign stop and public or TV appearance, Republicans are being asked to answer for Trump’s words. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was asked about Trump’s denunciation of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel and kept trying to change the subject.

The Republican Party is Trump’s party now. He broke it and they own it.

Trump’s campaign is operating on several levels, of course, with GOP politicians’ “I’m shocked” statements with each new Trump nugget (though knowing Trump, they must be as “shocked” as Claude Rains’ Captain Renault was that gambling was going on in Rick’s “Casablanca” club). And his voting supporters are very clearly getting the message from “birther” Trump that being born on U.S. soil is not enough to pass the candidate’s test for qualifying as a true American.

To use a boxing term, those embarrassed politicians can run but they can’t hide.

It’s a depressing preview of the charade that is sure to repeat from here to November and maybe beyond under a Trump presidency. While it hits particularly hard at a time of mourning for a man who was not afraid to risk everything, the crowds lining up to honor Ali prove that people know principle when they see it.

Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She is a senior facilitator for The OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.