Muhammad Ali died this week. He is remembered as a boxing legend. More than that he is remembered around the world as a man of conscience.
Born Cassius Clay in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, he refused to abide by the rules of segregation and Jim Crow. He refused to be quiet and go along to get along.
As a boxer he showed himself to be an athlete who fought with his own brand of theater and skill. He stretched the comfort zone of a society that liked to keep ‘black folk in their place’. Rather, he stated recklessly, ‘I am the greatest’! He inspired a generation of young blacks and in equal measure unsettled many whites.
Later, he changed his name of Muhammad Ali and embraced the Nation of Islam.
The backdrop for Ali’s emergence as a public figure was the fight for Civil Rights, the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War. In this volatile setting Ali emerged as a voice of conscience demanding to be treated with dignity. He refused to be quiet and complicit in the face of injustice.
Ali rose to international prominence when he refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam.
He said: “Who is the descendant of the slave masters to order a descendant of the slaves to fight other people in their own country?”
He paid a price. He was stripped of his standing as Heavyweight Champion. For three years at the height of his career he was barred from boxing. Yet his defiance in the face of racism and injustice inspired millions of oppressed people in the United States and around the world.
Even when Parkinson disease slurred his words and bowed his body, he remained a symbol for dignity and justice.
Over time society tried to domesticate Muhammad Ali, to make him yet another celebrity in popular culture. But Ali refused to be domesticated. For the rest of his life he spoke truth to power.
Ali’s witness reminds me of the recent book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’. We hear the words of a black father to his twelve your old son. Telling him about how to survive in racist America.
For me the book was a slap upside the head. Coates confronts me with the racism in America and within me. As a white man I discover I have much work to do.
Such has been the work of Muhammad Ali all these years. He’s refused to go along with the majority white culture. He’s refused to be complicit with those in power. He’s challenged the health of our minds and hearts.
Ali is lionized as a great boxer. More than that, he was a great man.