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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.”
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
Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all—black and brown and
poor—victims of the same system of oppression,” Dr. King
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.”
reportedly had one regret, which was that he turned his back on
Malcolm X during a meeting with his mentor in Ghana in 1964.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
This commentary originally appeared in AtlantaBlackStar