Muhammad Ali is dead at the age of 74. While the giant of a man is almost invariably praised for his victory in the boxing ring, he is also known for his fierce activism and for speaking out and standing up against racial oppression. At a time when the stakes are high for Black people and there is a need for bold voices and audacious leadership in the community, many athletes remain silent. Ali provides a shining example to the highly paid players of today, if they dare to follow his lead.
Although Ali is showered with praises in death, he was reviled and vilified in life for the decisions he made in the pursuit of justice, self-determination and unapologetic Blackness.
The heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist formerly known as Cassius Clay, Ali did two things that upset the established order and ruffled the feathers of white society. First, he joined the Nation of Islam, a religious organization centered around Black upliftment and self-empowerment. Malcolm X became his mentor. And he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
“We were brought here 400 years ago for a job. Why don’t we get out and build our own nation and quit begging for jobs?” Ali said, speaking of the poverty and deprivation facing Black people. “We’ll never be free until we own our own land. We’re 40 million people and we don’t have two acres that’s truly ours.”
Second, Ali refused to serve in the military or fight in the war in Vietnam based on religious grounds. Of the war, he said “that’s the White Man sending the Black Man to fight the Yellow Man to protect the country he stole from the Red Man.”
Further, Ali aptly noted, as only he could, that “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n*gger.”
It was 1966, and Ali was ahead of the curve when he refused to serve Uncle Sam. The civil rights establishment had fallen in line on the war, and when Martin Luther King publicly denounced America’s exploits in Vietnam, he was inspired by Ali, as The Nation notes.
“Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all—black and brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression,” Dr. King said.
Ali had much to say on the war, and in the process he took a stand against racial injustice here at home, and showed international solidarity with oppressed people across oceans.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali asked. “No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end,” he added, noting that he was warned this would cost him millions of dollars, but that the real enemy of his people is here in America.
“I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years,” Ali said.
And of course, they took away his Olympic medal, his title and his boxing license, to punish and make an example of him. And he was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000, a conviction which was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971 in Clay v. United States.
In “An Open Letter to My Sister, Angela Y. Davis,” James Baldwin articulated the significance of Ali’s stance: “I jumped the track but that’s of no more importance here, in itself, than the fact that some poor Spaniards become rich bull fighters, or that some poor Black boys become rich — boxers, for example. That’s rarely, if ever, afforded the people more than a great emotional catharsis, though I don’t mean to be condescending about that, either,” Baldwin wrote. “But when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and refused to put on that uniform (and sacrificed all that money!) a very different impact was made on the people and a very different kind of instruction had begun.”
Ali reportedly had one regret, which was that he turned his back on Malcolm X during a meeting with his mentor in Ghana in 1964.
“Turning my back on Malcolm,” Ali wrote in his 2004 autobiography The Soul of a Butterfly, “was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life,” Ali wrote, adding that “I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance.”
Ali represented a template for other Black athletes to follow in the realm of social justice activism. Surely, others have followed in his footsteps. Some examples include the iconic Black Power salute of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Contemporaries of Ali such as Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe are known for sticking out their necks on issues of concern to them. And recent examples of protest and activism by Black athletes include the strike by the University of Missouri football team in protest of on-campus racism; statements and positions taken by tennis star Serena Williams; and open displays of solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement by professional basketball and football players in connection with the killing of Black men by police. And yet, in an era of multimillion-dollar contracts that Ali’s generation could not have envisioned decades ago, the question arises as to whether many African-American athletes would be willing to make the sacrifices of individuals such as Ali, Jim Brown and others. Many present-day Black athletes live in the bubble of an affluent white world, and are rewarded based on how far they will distance themselves from their community. For all of their sizable contracts and endorsements, today’s athletes are reticent amidst their facade of power. They make millions as they generate billions for their 21st-century masters, whether the NFL, the NBA, or what have you.
In contrast, Ali was rooted in his community and saw himself not only as an integral part of that community, but he knew he had an obligation to improve the condition of Black folks. And for that, he was willing to relinquish all of his revenue, and he did — because he was a Black man who stood upright, refusing to scratch where he did not itch.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky — my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me,” Ali proclaimed.