Muhammad Ali is no longer with us physically, but his spirit will always live on.
And he will be known not only for his prowess, dexterity and skill in the ring but for being a man and standing up straight like one — a man who stood up for his community and for causes outside the ring.
Formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Malcolm X was his mentor, and that’s real. This larger-than-life heavyweight champion was known for his rope-a-dope style of boxing and was the most prolific trash talker sports had ever seen. And not only did he talk a good game, he backed it up with action, his beliefs and convictions.
“Cassius Clay is a slave name,” Ali said at the time. “I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people using it when speaking to me and of me.”
A conscientious objector, Ali opposed the Vietnam War on religious grounds. Drafted by the Army in 1967, he refused to serve because he said his beliefs as a practicing Muslim would not allow it.
“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?” Ali asked. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Vietcong ever called me n*gger.”
“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,” he added.
For his bold stance against the war, Ali was arrested for draft evasion, and the federal government came after him. He was sentenced to five years and fined $10,000, and he lost his boxing title and his boxing license. At the time, based on public opinion polls, most older whites thought Ali should go to prison, while most African-Americans and white college students supported him.
On June 4, 1967, some of the top black athletes — men such as Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — met in Cleveland to express their support for Muhammad Ali’s antiwar stance. The show of solidarity was a defining moment in sports and in civil rights.
Ultimately, the boxing giant took it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won his greatest fight. The court overturned his conviction in June 1971, 45 years ago this month.
Muhammad Ali was a class of athlete who saw his fate inextricably linked to the ordinary, everyday black folks.
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future,” Ali said. “We 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? 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 truly ours.”
Absent a social conscience, a prized athlete with a multimillion-dollar contract, championship titles and big product endorsements might be called a high-priced slave. An athlete-activist, Muhammad Ali served as a role model for his day and showed them how it’s done. He even inspired Martin Luther King to speak out against the war. And by example, Ali has just as much to teach a new generation of black young people in an era of new school activism and #BlackLivesMatter.
As Ali said: “I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”
Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove