Of all the icons that we lost in 2016, Muhammad Ali‘s passing was perhaps felt most acutely by the international community. His iconic status cannot be overstated. Ali represented for many of us the perfect alchemy of brilliance, confidence, charm and conviction. His accomplishments as a world-class athlete and activist are well documented:
- He began training as a boxer at the tender age of 12.
- By age 18 he became a gold medalist in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
- He met Malcolm X in 1962 at an Islam rally in Detroit. He would later convert to Islam.
- In 1964 he won all three major heavyweight titles, upsetting the previous title holder Sonny Liston.
- In 1966 he refused the military draft based on his religious beliefs and opposition to the war against Vietnam.
Because of his refusal to enroll in the armed forces, Ali was stripped of his passport and denied a boxing license in nearly every state. His forced hiatus would last from 1967 to 1970. It is worth noting that the NSA and the FBI were monitoring the communications of Ali; an indication that his candid views were perceived as threatening the status quo. Although he was a talented athlete, he was not exempt from the government’s attempts to control and silence individuals who expressed ideas about Black power and liberation.
Ali understood that he was more than just a boxer. He was actively engaged and politically aware of the impact of white supremacy and the oppression of black people in America. He spoke out on issues of race, integration, religion, and international conflict throughout his life. As recently as 2015, Ali spoke out against then candidate, Trump’s call to bar Muslims from entering the U.S., stating, “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.”
It is his outstanding example of speaking truth to power that has proven to be his most enduring legacy. Ali blazed the trail for all the athlete-activists of this generation, although he was not alone with legends such as Bill Russell and Jim Brown demonstrating their commitment to civil rights and Black economic empowerment. Today’s athletes, like Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, the St. Louis Rams and most notably Colin Kapernick, have Ali to thank for showing that it is possible to be successful and not compromise one’s personal convictions.
Many young people, especially young boys, express a desire to become rich and famous as an athlete with little thought to the the power and influence that comes with such notoriety. Telling the stories of Ali and others is important to the development of their own critical consciousness. Sadly, as adults we may not know many of the stories ourselves and that makes it all the more important that we break the cycle and ensure that this generation and those who follow are steeped in the knowledge of real heroes and the legacy they have left for us.
So to the original G.O.A.T., Muhammad Ali, we honor your life, your sacrifice and unapologetic love for our people. Thank you for the powerful example you set for young men and women of the Diaspora.
Peace good people!
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