Ah, the 70s… an American president was impeached for criminal activity; a congressman, Wayne Hays, resigned for sleeping with his secretary, after divorcing his wife to marry a different secretary; another congressman, Bud Shuster—who described Hays as “the meanest man in the house”—called for an investigation of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, after Cox was fired by the soon-to-be impeached president… ‘twas a different time, children, a simpler time….
Well, at any rate, they sure wore funny suits back then, eh? Those lapels…. But just like today, politics mixed freely with sports and entertainment in controversial and televisual ways. Boxers got ratings, singers got ratings, politicians like “meanest man in the house” Wayne Hays got ratings, even before his sex scandal, when he appeared on TV with boxers and singers—appeared, that is, on The Mike Douglas Show in 1974 with Muhammad Ali and Sly Stone. Actor and activist Theodore Bikel was there too, though you might blink and miss him in the fracas just above.
First, Hays offers some banal opinions on the subject of campaign financing, another one of those bygone 70s issues. But when Douglas poses the question to Ali of whether or not he’d ever run for office, things pick up, to say the least. Ali refuses to play the entertainer. He launches flurry after flurry of jabs at white America, and at Hays, who does his best to stay upright under the onslaught. “Ali is unyielding,” writes Dangerous Minds, “intense and brilliant.”
Ali takes on a serious question facing Black nationalists of the 60s and 70s, from the Panthers to the Nation of Islam, whose views Ali embraced at the time, along with, perhaps, some of their ugly anti-Semitism. (The following year he converted to Sunni Islam, and later became a Sufi.) Should Black activists participate in the oppressive systems of the U.S. government? Can anyone do good from inside the halls of imperialist power?
Hays makes an integrationist case, and champions Black leaders like congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Ali is relentlessly combative, calling for reparations. Sly slides in to clarify and pacify, playing mediator and referee. Douglas gets off the applause line, “isn’t it time we all tried to live together.” Ali refuses to gloss over racism and economic inequality. No peace, he says in effect, without justice. Aren’t we glad, forty-four years later, that we’ve ironed all this out? See the full show above for much more heavyweight commentary from Ali and sometimes fuzzy counterpoint from Sly. They go back and forth with Douglas for ten minutes before Hays and Bikel join.