Skip to main content

'Not as dumb as he looks' - Muhammad Ali on Bertrand Russell

In his autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, Muhammad Ali recounts how Bertrand Russell got in contact with him, and their ensuing correspondence:


***

For days I was talking to people from a whole new world. People who were not even interested in sports, especially prizefighting. One in particular I will never forget: a remarkable man, seventy years older than me but with a fresh outlook which seemed fairer than that of any white man I had ever met in America.
My brother Rahaman had handed me the phone, saying, ‘Operator says a Mr. Bertrand Russell is calling Mr. Muhammad Ali.’ I took it and heard the crisp accent of an Englishman: ‘Is this Muhammad Ali?’ When I said it was, he asked if I had been quoted correctly.
I acknowledged that I had been, but wondered out loud, ‘Why does everyone want to know what I think about Viet Nam? I’m no politician, no leader. I’m just an athlete.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘this is a war more barbaric than others, and because a mystique is built up around a champion fighter, I suppose the world has more than incidental curiosity about what the World Champion thinks. Usually he goes with the tide. You surprised them.’
I liked the sound of his voice, and told him I might be coming to England soon to fight the European champ, Henry Cooper, again.
‘If I fight Cooper, who’d you bet on?’
He laughed. ‘Henry’s capable, you know, but I would pick you.’
I gave him back a stock answer I used on such occasions: ‘You’re not as dumb as you look.’ And I invited him to ringside when I got to London.
He couldn’t come to the fight, but for years we exchanged cards and notes. I had no idea who he was (the name Bertrand Russell had never come up in Central High in Louisville) until two years later when I was thumbing through a World Book Encyclopaedia in the Muhammad Speaks newspaper office in Chicago and saw his name and picture. He was described as one of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers of the twentieth century. That very minute I sat down and typed out a letter of apology for my offhand remark, ‘You’re not as dumb as you look,’ and he wrote back that he had enjoyed the joke.
A short time after I fought Cooper, when I had another fight prospect in London, I made plans for Belinda and me to visit him, but I had to explain to him that the outcome of my fight against being drafted to Viet Nam might hold me up. The letter he wrote back was sent to me in Houston:

I have read your letter with the greatest admiration and personal respect.
In the coming months there is no doubt that the men who rule Washington will try to damage you in every way open to them, but I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and for the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. They will try to break you because you are a symbol of a force they are unable to destroy, namely, the aroused consciousness of a whole people determined no longer to be butchered and debased with fear and oppression. You have my wholehearted support. call me when you come to England.
Yours sincerely,
Bertrand Russell


By the time I got his letter I had been convicted and my passport lifted, just as his had been in World War I. Four years later, when my passport was returned, the friend I had made with my remark in my front yard had died. I thought of him whenever I visited England and for years I kept a picture of his warm face and wide eyes. ‘Not as dumb as he looks.’


Comments

Martin said…
Russell and Ali had the tools to change the world. And they changed it for many people around the world. I'm currently reading this book but I'm really surprised on how much of an influence Russell had on many people around the world. We must be strong in this world to change it one step at a time.
Jelel Ezzine said…
Greatness reveals itself in many ways for the benefit of us all. But when two different men meet in greatness, our collective consciousness grows a bit further. May they RIP.

Popular posts from this blog

Brexit Diary: Generous to a Fault

Generous to a Fault

Hapless Theresa May stepped nervously into the June European Council in Brussels. Her own status at such meetings is now qualified by the UK’s notification to withdraw from the European Union, which takes effect in March 2019. She can no longer participate in Council discussions about Brexit and has to leave the room. Before she departed the dinner table last night, however, Mrs May outlined an ‘offer’ on the rights of European Union citizens residing in the UK once that country has left the EU. The full ‘offer’ is due to be submitted in writing on Monday 26 June.

Of course, citizens’ rights are codified in law and guaranteed by treaty, to which the UK has acceded. Accordingly, millions of people have moved around the European Union, with many of them settling in the United Kingdom to live and work. The UK has legal obligations towards them. Continuity in their rights is required, if and when the UK leaves the EU. 

The initial response to Mrs May’s remarks from group…

Dawn of the Unread: book launch

Nottingham's Antenna Media Centre is set to host the launch of the physical manifestation of Dawn of the Unread. For those who may be hearing about this project for the first time, it began as a series of interactive webcomics featuring Nottingham's prominent literary figures, and which consideredour contemporary engagement with books and learning resources. Now the stories have been bound together as a paperback collection, edited by James Walker of local LeftLion magazine. It has been printed by Spokesman Books in association with the UNESCO-accredited Nottingham City of Literature project.


The launch will take place on 11 November, beginning at 7.30pm and ending at 9.30pm.

To purchase tickets, and for further information, see: https://nottsfol.co.uk/event/dawn-of-the-unread/