Muhammad Ali Jr. and Bob Hayes Connected by the Politics of Fear

Muhammad Ali Jr.
Muhammad Ali Jr., a son of Muhammad Ali, spoke during a forum on the consequences of President Trump’s immigration policies at the Capitol on Thursday. He was stopped at the airport the next day. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

There is little doubt the politics of fear – fear of different, fear of crime, fear of Muslims – have infected the tinier crannies of our lives these days.

At times, it appears that fear trumps common sense.

Being the son of perhaps the most famous sports icon in the world does not inoculate one from the human conditions triggered by this fear. Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the eponymous boxer whose name very few adults would not know, was detained on March 10 before boarding a flight from Reagan National Airport in Washington D. C. to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Ali was asked for his date of birth, his social security number, and where he was born despite handing a JetBlue agent his Illinois identity card. The agent then called Homeland Security. When Ali presented his passport, he was allowed onto the flight.

This was the second time in a month that Ali was detained at an airport, and only a day after Ali had testified at a forum in D. C. regarding President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

Of course, African Americans have been subject to this fear for centuries. And while race relations have improved visibly and measurably over the decades, one could argue there is still room for improvement. Ali’s story reminded me of the fastest man in the world in 1964, Bob Hayes, who won two gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. He then came home and signed with the Dallas Cowboys to become a Hall of Fame wide receiver, and one of only two NFL Super Bowl champions who also brought home the gold in an Olympics.

Bob Hayes Dallas Cowboys
Bob Hayes #22 Dallas Cowboys

Only a few weeks after Bob Hayes won gold in the 100-meter dash and won national bragging rights to one of the biggest events of the biggest global sports competition, Hayes signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys on December 8, 1964. This included a six-thousand -dollar Buick Rivera as part of Hayes’ signing bonus. Unfortunately, in the South in the Sixties, a black man driving an expensive car drew the suspicion of the police, regularly. In this account in his autobiography, Run, Bullet, Run, is how Hayes, arguably one of the most famous athletes in America at the time, was treated like a “boy” by local authorities.

That car caused me a little trouble when I got back to school. You see, there weren’t many black kids my age (I turned twenty two less than two weeks after I signed with the Cowboys) driving cars like that in good old Tallahassee. About once a week or so, some of Tallahassee’s finest would stop me and ask, “Boy, whose car is that?” I would tell them it was my car, and they would give me a ticket for anything they felt like – speeding, running a stop sign, driving on white folks’ streets – you name it.

I finally got smart. I went downtown and bought a chauffeur’s black cap and put it in the back seat. Every time the police pulled me over after that asked me whose car I was driving, I would say, “It’s my boss man’s car,” and they would let me go. This was the era when, while driving from Dallas back to Florida, I would pass restaurants all over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama with signs that read, “No colored” or “Colored around back.” I was good enough to represent their country in the Olympics, but not good enough to eat with them.

1964 Buick Rivera