Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali: A Shining Example of Deliberate Black Pride
"He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero…. Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that although the clown never imitates a wise man, a wise man can imitate the clown."--Malcolm X
Today (Jan. 17) is the birthday of Muhammad Ali; a man who remains one of the most revered figures in American culture. But that reverence was a long time coming, and is often accompanied with stark revision for the sake of making the outspoken heavyweight champ and activist more palatable for those who would never support a man of Ali's perspective and convictions. This was evident after Ali's passing last June, and it had been apparent throughout much of the latter years of his life. Muhammad Ali was so much more than many of those who claim to love him can acknowledge. Here was a Black man who rose to the height of public visibility and, once there, made it his purpose to throw jabs and right hooks at the white supremacy to which so many in his position had acquiesced.
At 22, he renounced "Cassius Clay" as his "slave name" and publicly emerged as Muhammad Ali. In the early 1960s, with a stigma against the Nation of Islam amongst many Americans, it was a bold move. But it would be one of several the champ would embrace. After successfully defending his title, (including an infamous 1967 bout against Ernie Terrell when Ali pummeled Terrell and screamed "What's my name?" in the eighth round after the challenger had repeatedly called him "Cassius Clay" in interviews), Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. With the Vietnam War raging, Ali refused to serve. "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?" Ali said. "They never called me 'nigger.' They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me." When he was subsequently stripped of his boxing title and banned from the sport, (following a conviction for draft evasion and appealed prison sentence) Ali spent his time lecturing about racism and American hypocrisy regarding the war.
Today, Ali's anti-war stance is framed as just a man's refusal to endorse an unjust war; but it wasn't just war that Ali opposed; he opposed the killing of brown people by white imperialists. He opposed the exploitation of Black soldiers for the furthering of white oppression. Ali's anti-war stance was not at all "colorless." At the same time that he was repudiating the Vietnam War, he was championing the rise of Black radicalism as a means for Black people to liberate themselves from the ideas and values of their white oppressors.
In a 1970 interview for The Black Scholar, Ali said. “I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn’t get. Go on and join something. If it isn’t the Muslims, at least join the Black Panthers. Join something bad.”
He wasn't a Black celebrity preoccupied with white acceptance. His view of progress wasn't necessarily white people allowing Black people to sit at their table; it was in Black autonomy and liberation.
"I ain’t no Christian," Ali said in 1964 regarding his conversion to Islam. "I can’t be, when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration getting blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and don’t find the killers. I get telephone calls every day. They want me to carry signs. They want me to picket. They tell me it would be good for brotherhood. I don’t want to be blown up. I don’t want to be washed down sewers. I just want to be happy with my own kind.
"I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, but right now there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into. I know how to dodge booby traps and dogs. I dodge them by staying in my own neighbourhood. I’m no troublemaker. I don’t believe in forced integration. I know where I belong. I’m not going to force myself into anybody’s house."
After his comeback, Ali fought George Foreman in 1974. Hyped as "The Rumble in the Jungle," the fight took place in Zaire and saw Ali moving to Africa and being embraced by the people--who would follow him as he trained, chanting "Ali Bomaye! ("Ali, kill him!" in Lingala). With the backdrop of a three day music festival featuring iconic Black performers like James Brown, Miriam Makeba and Celia Cruz; Ali's own charismatic charming of the country added to his highly visible embrace of Black culture--and connecting the U.S. Black experience with Black people throughout the world. The fighter would deliver one of his most iconic fights, employing a strategy dubbed the "rope-a-dope," where he provoked Foreman into attacking him repeatedly while Ali only defended himself. Once Foreman became tired, Ali aggressively counterattacked and knocked the champ out in the eighth round and reclaiming the title. For many, it was a shining moment for Black pride. Both fighters were Black, but Ali embodied the hopes and pride of a people like no athlete before or since.
He fought Frazier a final time in 1975, in a fight dubbed the "Thrilla in Manila." Ali won in a technical knockout in the 15th round. He would retain the title until 1978, when he was defeated by Leon Spinks. He won it back, before retiring in 1979. He returned to the ring in 1980 to face Larry Holmes in a title match that Ali lost. He lost to Trevor Berbick the following year and finally walked away from the sport permanently.
"I'm in no pain," he told The New York Times after it was made public that he was suffering from Parkinson's Disease in 1981. "A slight slurring of my speech, a little tremor. Nothing critical. If I was in perfect health — if I had won my last two fights — if I had no problem, people would be afraid of me. Now they feel sorry for me. They thought I was Superman. Now they can go, 'He's human, like us. He has problems.'"
Even as his health declined, Ali would become a highly visible ambassador and humanitarian, traveling to Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990 to seek the release of American hostages. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and that same year, the docu-film When We Were Kings, about "The Rumble In the Jungle," was released in theaters with a soundtrack that included a hip-hop track called "Rumble In the Jungle" featuring The Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest. In 2005, President George W. Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Muhammad Ali Center opened that year in his hometown of Louisville. He also became a public advocate for sufferers of Parkinson's disease and for the Islamic community in America and worldwide.
Following Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric in the wake of the San Bernadino shooting, Ali addressed violence and hatespeech.
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali wrote. “They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.”
“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” he said.
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”
The greatest of all time, Ali's death sparked an outpouring of grief and gratitude for the icon. NBA legend and fellow Muslim Kareem Abdul Jabbar summed up Ali's legacy as a hero to African Americans, in particular.
"To the African-American community," wrote Jabbar, "He was a black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly."