1942-2016, Muhammad Ali Die at 74
June 4, 2016 by staff
1942-2016, Muhammad Ali Die at 74, The reverberations. Not the rumbles, the reverberations. The death of Muhammad Ali will undoubtedly move people’s minds to his epic boxing matches against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, or there will be retrospectives about his epic “rumbles” against racism and war. But it’s the reverberations that we have to understand in order to see Muhammad Ali as what he remains: the most important athlete to ever live. It’s the reverberations that are our best defense against real-time efforts to pull out his political teeth and turn him into a harmless icon suitable for mass consumption.
When Dr. Martin Luther King came out against the war in Vietnam in 1967, he was criticized by the mainstream press and his own advisors who told him to not focus on “foreign” policy. But Dr. King forged forward, and to justify his new stand, said publicly, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all-black and brown and poor-victims of the same system of oppression.”
When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he said that Muhammad Ali made him feel like the walls were not there.
When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City, one of their demands was to “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” They called Ali “the warrior-saint of the Black Athlete’s Revolt.”
When Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteers in Lowndes County, Alabama launched an independent political party in 1965, their new group was the first to use the symbol of a black panther. Beneath the jungle cat’s black silhouette was a slogan straight from the champ: “WE Are the Greatest.”
When Billie Jean King was aiming to win equal rights for women in sports, Muhammad Ali would say to her, “Billie Jean King! YOU ARE THE QUEEN!” She said that this made her feel brave in her own skin.
The question is why? Why was he able to create this kind of radical ripple throughout the culture and across the world?
What Muhammad Ali did-in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing black skin-was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage. Through the Champ’s words on the streets and deeds in the ring, bravery was not only standing up to Sonny Liston. It was speaking truth to power, no matter the cost. He was a boxer whose very presence taught a simple and dangerous lesson fifty years ago: “real men” fight for peace and “real women” raise their voices and join the fray. Or as Bryant Gumbel said years ago, “Muhammad Ali refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”
My favorite Ali line is not him saying, “I hospitalized a rock. I beat up a brick. I’m so bad I make medicine sick” or anything of the sort. It was when he was suspended from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. He was attending a rally for fair housing in Louisville when he said,
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? 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. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is 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. 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.
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