The death of Muhammad Ali last week took away Donald Trump’s monopoly of television news coverage, at least for a time.
There was some irony, of course, as the “I am the greatest” clips from Ali replaced similar campaign assertions by Trump. Ali and Trump are certainly the two most unapologetic and unabashed public proclaimers of their own superiority in my lifetime.
Ali was an extraordinary boxing champion, almost as great as he said he was. However, what made him an historical figure and earned our enduring respect was not his talk or boxing. It was his courageous confrontation with our society about its policies of racial discrimination and about the country’s unwise war in Vietnam that was sapping its strength and spirit.
Coincidentally, on the same day we learned about Ali’s death, a church service in Chapel Hill gave tribute to another person whose tenacious advocacy helped change our country for the better.
Patricia Derian and her husband, Hodding Carter, came to Chapel Hill in 2005. While Carter, who had been spokesperson for the U.S. State Department during the Carter administration, became an active teacher and commentator, Derian was not so well known to us.
Therefore some were surprised to read former President Jimmy Carter’s praise of her extraordinary work. “As the senior State Department official in charge of human rights during my administration, Patt spent hundreds of hours meeting with victims and their families. She became a champion of oppressed people around the world, helping me exert pressure on dictatorships from Argentina to South Korea. Because of her determination and effective advocacy, countless human rights and democracy activists survived that period, going on to plant the seeds of freedom in Latin America, Asia, and beyond.”
Similarly, The New York Times’s obituary showed her to be a tenacious fighter for human rights throughout the world, pushing her colleagues in government to use the country’s clout to pressure foreign governments to improve. For example, The Times wrote, “By most accounts, thousands of lives may been spared because of her work. One big success came during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ when teachers, lawyers, labor leaders and others were being seized by the country’s ruling junta, held without charges and in some cases executed as part of a so-called antiterrorism campaign. Ms. Derian outraged Argentina’s military leaders when she brushed aside their denials of involvement in the abductions and murders of civilians. In one meeting with the military, in 1977, she whipped out a floor plan of a government building. ‘You and I both know that as we speak, people are being tortured in the next floors,’ she was quoted as saying. Jacob Timerman, an Argentine journalist who was tortured by the junta, said in 1977 that Ms. Derian had saved him from certain execution.”
Earlier, in the 1960s in the times of Muhammad Ali, her tenacity had been honed fighting for equal rights in Mississippi. As Hodding Carter said about his wife, “She was the bravest person I ever knew. Stone cold killers did not faze her. She walked without apparent pause into face-to-face confrontation with evil—a murderous sheriff in Mississippi who specialized in back-shooting black folk, or a slick Argentinean junta leader who pretended he knew nothing of the torture center two floors below his office. She knew what was right and what was wrong; she knew the central thrust of America’s founding documents; she understood what Christ taught and the saints exemplified. She could not and would not stand silent as the Bill of Rights, international law and congressional intent were subverted, whether in the name of ‘our way of life’ or real politik.”
By the time you read this, Trump’s “I am the greatest” will be back on TV.
I will still be remembering Muhammad Ali and Patricia Derian.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.