News & Politics » Miscellany

Media

A Writer Wronged: NBC's Revision of History

by

comment

It was for many the most moving moment of the Olympics: Muhammad Ali, the century's greatest athlete, hobbled to center court to receive a replacement gold medal for the one he had won in 1960.

Ali's original medal was lost years ago, NBC commentator Bob Costas declared during the broadcast of that August 3 ceremony. Legend has it that Ali tossed his original medal away in protest, but that's an "apocryphal" tale, Costas assured his listeners. It could have happened, but in all likelihood the medal was merely lost.

And with that Ali, so stricken with parkinsonism that his arm trembles and he can barely speak, bent low to have a new gold medal placed round his neck. Viewers undoubtedly were touched to be assured that a great void in Ali's life had been filled.

Except Costas was wrong. The medal-tossing story can hardly be apocryphal, since its source is Ali himself. He devoted about 15 pages of his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story, to telling it, setting it up as a defining moment in his life, when he realized he could no longer tolerate being a "White Hope." In less than a minute of airtime NBC rewrote the history of one of black America's most revered symbols of independence, while slighting the work of Richard Durham, a south-side writer and Ali's coauthor on The Greatest.

Durham died in 1984 at 67, but his widow, Clarice, and their son, Mark, were appalled by Costas's remarks. "I believe Costas and NBC owe my family an apology," says Mark Durham. "I believe they should go on TV and say something to repair the damages. Millions and millions of people heard what Costas said. With one little comment he obscured the truth."

Durham and Ali were introduced by Malcolm X in the early 60s, says Mark. This was shortly before Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, announced he had become a disciple of Black Muslims leader Elijah Muhammad. Durham was an award-winning writer, the editor of the Black Muslims newspaper Muhammad Speaks, a speechwriter for various Democratic politicians, a friend and working associate of Langston Hughes, Studs Terkel, and Richard Wright, a contributor to many publications, including Playboy and Ebony, and a scriptwriter of radio and TV plays. "He was very proud of a radio series he wrote for WMAQ back in the late 40s called Destination Freedom," says Mark Durham. "This was about heroic figures in African-American history, and it came at a time when black folks portrayed on radio were caricatures at best."

When Ali asked Durham to write his book, the boxer was already an international figure, hated by many whites almost as much as he was loved by blacks. He'd been banned from fighting, stripped of his heavyweight title, and forced to battle a conviction for refusing army induction on religious grounds. Durham and Ali signed their book deal with Random House in 1969, and for the next few years Durham flew all over the world with Ali, getting an up-close view of his judicial vindication, his monumental fights against Joe Frazier, and his stirring win over George Foreman to recapture his crown.

"Random House gave my father an American Airlines card that let him fly whenever and wherever he wanted," says Mark Durham. "Toni Morrison was the editor, and Toni later told my mother that it was an honor for her to work with a writer of Richard Durham's accomplishment and capability. I was a college student at Columbia University at the time, and my father let me work on the book. I followed Ali around with a tape recorder. We were like family with Ali."

Published in 1975, The Greatest was greeted with reviews that were divided along racial lines. Garry Wills, a white historian, wrote that "[Ali's] own book is the least interesting thing ever written about him," while the black novelist Ishmael Reed called it "a bone-crushing, quality thriller that belongs in the same class as autobiographies written by Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and James Weldon Johnson."

In retrospect, the book offers a remarkably intimate account of Ali's life and an insightful analysis of race in America. Ali describes his first clumsy sexual encounters, compares boxers to "slaves in the ring...almost on the verge of annihilating each other while the masters are smoking big cigars, screaming and urging us on, looking for the blood," and displays some richly evocative prose, as when he says a blow sent Foreman to "the room of the half-dream...listening to the tuning forks humming in his head, bats blowing saxophones, alligators whistling, neon signs blinking." One highlight of the book is a transcript of a conversation between Ali and Frazier, taped during a raucous two-hour drive from Philadelphia to New York City in Frazier's gold Cadillac. These days Frazier is bitter toward his old rival, but the transcript reveals they have much in common. "Say, you see that cop--keeps looking over here," Ali says at one point. "Wow! There's another policeman....Why they looking at us? They must be thinking, 'Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali? Why was them niggers together? What was them niggers doing?'"

The gold-medal scene comes as Ali recounts his triumphant return to Louisville, his hometown. The story begins with a patronizing ceremony in the mayor's office ("They would settle for a Black White Hope, as long as he believed what they believed, talked the way they talked and hated the people they hated.... It took me a while to learn that while the slave masters cheer for slavery, they get a freakish thrill making the slave cheer for slavery") and ends with a fight against racist thugs. In between, Ali and his longtime friend Ronnie King are refused service at a local diner. Ali says, "I'm Cassius Clay. The Olympic Champion." But the owner replies: "I don't give a damn who he is!...I done told you, we don't serve no niggers!" The exchange is overheard by a gang of motorcycle toughs in leather jackets with "Nazi insignias on their backs and Confederate flags painted on the front." The gang chases Ali and King to the Jefferson County bridge, which crosses the Ohio River, threatening to lynch them if Ali doesn't give them the medal. "My Gold Medal had lost its gleam," Ali writes, "but every ounce of my blood and marrow rebelled against paying it out as ransom."

Eventually, Ali and King take on two of the bikers, identified in the book as Frog and Slim. Ali writes that he made a "split-second" move "without which my career would have been forever altered....Slim whipped his doubled-up chain at my head. Instead of slashing my face, the chain wrapped around my shoulders. Instinctively, I shot my hand out and gripped the chain and jerked with all my might. The force snatched Slim off his hog and hurled us together in a violent impact. His head struck mine and stunned me, but not enough to stop me from smashing my fist into his face. His body hit the ground, blood spurted from his nose, his empty hog careened over the rail."

The fight, along with the diner owner's remarks and the scene in the mayor's office, leaves Ali feeling bitter and betrayed; the gold medal, ripped from his neck during the fight and stained with Slim's blood, has become a symbol of his country's racial hypocrisy: "This was the first time the Gold Medal had been away from my chest since the Olympic judge hung it there that day I stood on the podium....And for the first time I saw it as it was. Ordinary, just an object. It had lost its magic. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do with this cheap piece of metal and raggedy ribbon....I remember thinking that the middle of the Ohio was probably the deepest part, and I walked over to the center of the bridge....I held the medallion just far enough out so that it wouldn't tangle in the bridge structure, and threw it into the black water of the Ohio. I watched it drag the red, white and blue ribbon down to the bottom behind it.

"When I turned Ronnie had a look of horror in his eyes. 'Jesus. Oh, my God!' Then tears came down his cheeks. 'Oh, my God. You know what you did?'

"'It wasn't real gold. It was phony.' I tried to put my arms around him. He was wet and cold and stiff. 'It was phony.'

"He wasn't listening. 'Why you throw it in the river? Why?'

"How could I put the answer together? I wasn't sure of all the reasons. The Olympic medal had been the most precious thing that had ever come to me. I worshipped it. It was proof of performance, status, a symbol of belonging, of being a part of a team, a country, a world....How could I explain to Ronnie I wanted something that meant more than that? Something that was as proud of me as I would be of it. Something that would let me be what I had to be, my own kind of champion....I felt calm, relaxed, confident. My holiday as White Hope was over. I felt a new, secret strength."

After the book came out, some writers questioned whether the scene as described had really taken place--something that's almost impossible to determine since Ronnie King died before the book was published and Frog and Slim's real identities were (and have remained) unknown--noting that it sounds too good to be true. "As an example of 'fakelore,' it's a clever piece of work," writes Robert Lipsyte in his book Free to Be Muhammad Ali. "As another irony in Ali's life, it's also almost too perfect."

Still, Ali has repeated the account so many times over the years that most of his longtime fans were stunned to hear Costas call it "apocryphal."

"When I heard Costas I thought, What's he talking about?" says Vernon Jarrett, the retired Sun-Times columnist. "I knew Dick Durham; he was a close friend. He was one of the greatest writers around. When he wrote something, he got it right."

Clarice Durham was another surprised viewer. "My husband spent a lot of time with Ali and taped many interviews," she says. "I wish I knew where those tapes were."

"It was such a ludicrous comment I didn't take it seriously at first," adds Mark Durham. "How could he say the story's apocryphal? It's in Ali's own book! I never considered that people would take Costas as a credible source. Then I started thinking, Oh my God, not everyone's read The Greatest, not everyone knows my father. There are millions of people all over the world who now think Muhammad Ali just misplaced his medal, like he lost it in the wash, and that ever since he's been walking around saying, 'Gee, I want that medal back.'"

A spokesman for Costas says the announcer has nothing to say about the matter other than "he got his information from Brian Brown," an NBC producer in New York. Brown notes that other writers have recently raised doubts about Ali's story and says he based his information on an interview with an anonymous source. "I was confidentially told by a very good source--and someone I have every reason to trust--that [Ali] didn't quite lose his medal that way," says Brown.

But why call it apocryphal if the story's in Ali's book?

"I haven't looked apocryphal up in the dictionary, but I think that what Bob means is that the story's become a legend," says Brown. "Bob certainly didn't mean to suggest that it wasn't mentioned in The Greatest. Bob's a wonderful contemporaneous speaker, and over the course of five hours he utters hundreds of thousands of words. Bob didn't mean to call into question Richard Durham; I don't think it's Richard Durham's fault that Ali told him a story that's probably not true. If the story has changed it's not Durham's fault."

Brown's explanation doesn't satisfy Mark Durham. It doesn't address the condescending confidence with which Costas uttered his proclamation, as though only fools believe any other version, and it reveals that Costas wasn't leveling with his listeners. Had Costas been completely up-front he would have looked silly. Saying "What you're about to hear comes from my producer who swears he got it from a secret source whose identity I won't reveal" would have raised an obvious question: Why should 40 million TV viewers believe an unnamed source whose credibility can't be tested over Ali, who has not publicly rescinded his story? And to some extent whether Ali had embellished that story matters less than the point it makes about the hypocrisy of race relations in America. To call the story apocryphal (or a legend), as though Ali had nothing to do with it, trivializes recent history and turns the boxer into what he never wanted to be--a "White Hope"--to contrive a phony, made-for-TV sense of reconciliation.

"With that one little remark Costas demeaned the impact of jim crow and of segregation and of everything that African-Americans lived through--he was making it like some whimsical stuff of yesteryear," says Mark Durham. "He should have quoted from The Greatest. He should have let the world know just how Muhammad Ali felt. Ali was the most beloved and despised athlete of his time not because he won a medal but because he had the courage to say 'I threw this medal into the river.' That's a powerful statement to make about America, and apparently it's still too powerful for some people to take.

"Listen, I'm glad to see Ali being honored, but I wish America had the guts to acknowledge he was right. I don't know what Ali now says about what happened to his old gold medal. But isn't it funny that they start spreading these stories when he can't speak? They put him on TV and give him medals and say whatever they want about him now that he's harmless. They talk about how beautiful the tiger is now that they got him in the cage. It was a much different story when that tiger was in the forest."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Mark and Clarice Durham, by Randy Tunnell.

Add a comment