Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties

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9781859842935: Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties

Is there a more characteristic figure of the sixties than Muhammad Ali-playful and political, popular and non-conformist, defiant and triumphant? In a unique new book, Mike Marqusee puts the great boxer back in his true historical context to explore a crucial moment at the cross-roads of popular culture and mass resistance. He traces Ali’s interaction with the evolving black liberation and anti-war movements, including his brief but fascinating liaison with Malcolm X, as well as his encounters with Martin Luther King. Marquesee’s elegant and forceful narrative explores the origins and impact of Ali’s dramatic public stands on race and the draft, and reinterprets the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, shedding new light on its triumph and tragedy. Above all, he imbues Ali’s story with a long-neglected international dimension, revealing why he was embraced with such warmth by diverse peoples across the globe. This timely antidote to the apolitical celebration of Ali as ‘a great American’ revisits the man and the period with a fresh eye, casting new light on both his courage and his confusions.

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Review:

Ali has been a player on the world stage for so long, it's hard to remember that before his metamorphosis into a cultural icon holding the Olympic flame aloft he was a cultural lightening rod. Hero to some, traitor to others, he managed to land powerful punches both in and out of the ring. What changed him from athlete to personality to a heavyweight of global reach? "At the core of the Ali story," Mike Marqusee reminds us, "is a young man who made daunting choices and stuck to them in the face of ghastly threats and glittering inducements." Redemption Song explores those choices in the context of the turbulent times in which they were made.

Ali and the '60s were a naturally synergistic fit. It was a time of great change, and Ali, the seeker, had remarkable access to the fomenters of that change. They, in turn, had a prime influence on his symbolic rebirth and reemergence. As Redemption Song recounts, the night the young Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston for the title in 1964, he skipped the traditional post-fight party and headed straight for Miami's black ghetto where he met with Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke, and the running back Jim Brown, an early advocate of black rights in sports. The next morning, announcing to the white world that "I'm free to be what I want" and "I don't have to be what you want me to be," he confirmed rumors about his conversion to Islam. Clay was dead; long live Ali.

The conversion to Islam was only one of Ali's "daunting choices." As Marqusee moves through the decade, he carefully traces Ali's choices to confront the establishment and stand as a symbol of civil rights and the anti-war effort; his relationships with Malcolm X, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King; and the importance of his travels to Africa. There's plenty of boxing too--Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Foreman; the ring, after all, was his arena. Marqusee, though, is more interested in how Ali expanded that arena to take in the kinds of fights that go beyond the ropes. It's a tall order, but Redemption Song fulfills it with solid reporting and worthy analysis. --Jeff Silverman

About the Author:

Mike Marqusee‘s books include Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties, War Minus the Shooting, Anyone but England and If I Am Not for Myself. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and writes a fortnightly column for the Indian newspaper The Hindu. He lives in London.

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Mike Marqusee
Editorial: Verso (2000)
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Mike Marqusee
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Marqusee, Mike
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