A letter from a reader: When Muhammad Ali lit a spark

March 19, 2008:

In the fall of 1968 my husband, Bob Hernandez '69, was the epitome of a Princeton student of his time: clean-cut, meticulously mannered with adults, often rather innocently wild in the company of his roommates. He planned to attend Harvard Law School and begin a career in government after serving his country in the war in Vietnam. As the president of Whig-Clio, he hosted numerous luminaries lecturing for the society, including Alabama Gov. George Wallace. When Muhammad Ali came to speak, Bob took him to dinner at Charter Club, where they fell into a lively and profound conversation. Afterward, they walked together to the lecture hall in the brisk night air and the great man reflected, "Hernandez, huh? I bet you have some nigger blood in you." Bob took this as an enormous compliment.

Bob did go to Harvard Law School but soon turned against the war and, rather than entering mainstream politics, threw himself into the fight against racism, serving democracy by empowering all-too-often voiceless or underrepresented members of our society. He got back in touch with his father from whom he'd been estranged by his parents' divorce and began remembering the stories of his great grandparents' trek from Ecuador to the United States.

He began to recognize his struggle against racism as also his own battle, and helped found the Massachusetts Association of Hispanic Attorneys (MAHA). In his solo law practice he took on police brutality and workplace discrimination. With MAHA he organized for the appointment of Hispanic judges and focused the attention of the Massachusetts court on the problem of interpreters in the justice system. In 2001 the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now known as the American Association for Justice) honored him with the Soaring Eagle Award for his lifetime achievements for civil rights.

Bob was one of a very few Hispanics at Princeton during the 1960s and lacked the opportunities to ponder the ethnic aspect of his identity available to Princeton students today. Muhammad Ali lit a spark in him about the implications of his "nigger blood" that would grow more illuminating with the years. Bob's life course shifted to helping to assemble and shore up the practical apparatus that diminishes racism and race privilege in this country. In private he yearns for a world that can afford to view race as an antiquated social construct. Can one, if one acknowledges one's privilege, choose "nigger blood" out of solidarity?

On the day our daughter, Persephone Hernandez-Vogt, was born, Bob told me, his European-descended wife, "You are now Hispanic by birth." What would happen to anti-Semitism if, like the Danes during Nazi occupation, we all wore stars of David or, in the current climate, we all wore headscarves and renamed ourselves Ali?

Thank you, Princeton, for honoring Muhammed Ali (feature, July 18), whose momentary kind attention to a young boy became an essential element of that boy's Princeton experience and the man he would become.

Newton, Mass.

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