Thinking about The Greatest …
Mohammad Ali, 1970, Photo Credit: Yousuf Karsh
When I was a girl growing up in the 1960’s I recall having peripheral knowledge of boxing—and certainly of the man who took the boxing world by storm when he became the Heavyweight Champion of the World followed in short order by his conversion to the Nation of Islam.
That man, Mohammad Ali, and his choice to not only become a Muslim, but a Black Muslim writ large in my consciousness. After all, 1964 was a watershed year in the long march for Civil Rights in the United States. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 coupled with his decision was in my eyes a strong statement in a world that continued to castigate people of color into subservient humiliation. I’ll add that as a ten-year-old girl, I lacked the sophistication to understand the nuanced interplay of sports, fame, politics, and personal conviction that rip-roared through the press on an almost daily basis after he made his decision public. I did, however, know greatness when I saw it and felt forever bound to the fortunes of this man who took a stand.
By the mid-1960s the United States was convulsed by revolution playing out as a nightly diet of riots, anti-war marches, and horrific images of war from far off Viet Nam. Muhammad Ali’s journey, which could have stopped with his personal decision to embrace the Nation of Islam did not, however, begin and end there. Rather, he embraced his fame and his place in the larger community to speak out about what mattered to him—including refusing the draft.
At a rally for fair housing in Louisville, Kentucky, in March 1967, a month before his formal refusal he said:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?
No, I am not going ten thousand 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. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.
His refusal, and subsequent conviction cost him dearly. He lost the right to fight, was vilified in the press as a radical and though his conviction was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court—his years away from boxing cost him, even as he fought hard and with extraordinary courage and fortitude to reign supreme again.
No less a man than Nelson Mandela has felt inspired by Muhammad Ali’s actions. And for a young girl, growing up in a time of confusion and difficulty, his very presence, fortitude, and strength made me feel inspired.
My heart goes out to his family as they mourn him—just as I mourn his loss with the community of the world forever touched by his greatness.
Rest in Peace.