Everyone has a story about Muhammad Ali. For me it was as a young Black high school student in Detroit. I had already seen the wrongs of imperialism and its wars — and of course the racism Blacks faced in Detroit.
Ali as a Black man and Muslim was a powerful symbol of courage. His willingness to give up his boxing career in the 1960s to stand with the Vietnamese against the US government waging war on them reflected the stirrings of militant Black pride growing in Detroit.
As a son of a Muslim father and a Black mother, I understood this deeply and personally. I remember in 1969, students from Detroit's Wayne State University organised an anti-war protest, the leaflet that I created featuring a big picture of a fierce Ali saying those famous defiant words: “No Vietnamese called me nigger.”
We distributed the flyer at the college, high schools, community stores and movie theatres with positive responses.
Muhammad Ali spoke truth to power. Even after he became ill with Parkinson's disease and eventually lost much of his verbal skills, he stood by his youthful militant spirit. He never apologised for his words or action. He remained a symbol of resistance and a voice standing by his principles no matter the consequences.
Ali was born in segregated Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. He knew the history of racism — lived it — and understood that as a Black man he was considered by whites as second class. Yet those chains never held him back.
In 1960, after winning an Olympic gold medal as light heavy weight champion, he went downtown to eat at a whites-only diner. It did not matter that he had just won gold, as a Black man he was refused service.
On April 18, 1967, he refused to be drafted into the US Army. He was in the prime of his professional boxing career and lost millions of dollars. His action at a drafting centre in Houston, Texas, was brave and without modern precedent.
Some of the most prominent Black athletes of the day — football star Jim Brown, basketball great Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and others — tried to get him to change his mind.
After a two-hour closed door meeting, Ali won them over. They supported his right to be a conscientious objector.
Writing in Time magazine after Ali's death, Abdul-Jabbar said: “While I admired the athlete of action, it was the man of principle who was truly my role model.”
Announcing his refusal to serve, Ali told the world: “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 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.”
In the June 4 New York times, Michael Powell described how many African Americans feel about Ali: “I was not yet a teenager when I wandered into the living room of our rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. I saw my parents sitting silently by our black-and-white television, listening as a young Black boxer, Muhammad Ali, talked.
“He was saying he would not serve in the Army and he would not fight those Vietcong. 'My conscience won't let me go and shoot them,' Ali said in that rat-a-tat-tat stream-of-consciousness style of his. 'They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, and they didn't put any dogs on me.'
“'How can I shoot those poor people?' he added. 'Just take me to jail.'
“Just take me to jail. Those words registered as astonishing. Here was this great, sexy fighter on the cusp of fame and fortune … And he was willing to march off to prison to protest an unjust war.”
Ali understood US's history of state-sanctioned and extralegal violence against African Americans. Ali's father was influenced by Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist and Pan Africanist leader in the early 20th century, and other groups that supported Black self-help and community control, not racial integration.
Born as Cassius Clay, Ali changed his name to Cassius X and then Muhammad Ali after winning his first of three heavy weight championships in 1964. He was a friend of the greatest Black American revolutionary of the 20th century, Malcolm X.
He explained his change succinctly and with poetic flourish: “Cassius Clay is a slave name, I didn't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — it means beloved of God — and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.”
The outrage by the sports media to his name change exposed its deep racism. Most refused to use his new name. There was outrage that Ali would convert to Islam and worse, a Black Nationalist “sect” — the Nation of Islam (NOI).
Even many on the left, including the Communist Party, were hostile to Black nationalism and the NOI.
Ali first met the NOI in 1961. He credited it, and then-NOI member Malcolm X in particular, for his becoming a Muslim. Due to hostility toward Islam in general and the Black separatist NOI in particular, Ali waited until he won his 1964 championship before publicly announcing his allegiance.
The NOI believed that Africans created the human race and were superior to the white race. It told Black Americans to be proud of their heritage and stay separate from the white race. It did not support the civil rights goal of integration and opposed the US government's wars. At the same time, the NOI supported the right of self-defence.
The group also supported anti-racist and anti-colonial fights around the world. This helped ensure its newspaper was widely read by Blacks, including socialists.
The NOI softened its opposition to boxing once Ali joined. Malcolm X urged him to present a strong voice and presence to Africans around the world. Many of Ali's principles thus came from the Nation.
Of course, there were other more secular Black nationalists who advocated Black self determination and supported a revolutionary transformation of US society — advocating for socialism.
When Malcolm X broke with the NOI in 1964, Ali stayed loyal to the group, although in the 1970s he followed Malcolm's path to more orthodox Sunni Islam.
In his 2004 book The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey, Ali expressed regret at his break with Malcolm, writing: “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I'd been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things.
“But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary ahead of us all.”
Convicted of draft evasion, Ali was sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison and a US$10,000 fine, but remained free while the conviction was appealed. Many saw Ali as a draft dodger and his popularity plummeted.
Banned from boxing for more than three years, Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War on college campuses. As public attitudes turned against the war, support grew for Ali.
In 1970, the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license reinstated. The next year, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous decision.
In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, yet he did not slow in his peace activities. Ali traveled to numerous countries, including Mexico and Morocco, to help out those in need.
Ali was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998 because of his work in developing nations. After he became ill, he stayed out of politics except to use his fame to encourage everyone to do the best.
Ali endorsed Ronald Reagan for re-election as president in 1984, but he had supported left-leaning Black rights campaigner Jesse Jackson in the Democratic presidential primaries. He had previously supported Democratic president Jimmy Carter.
Ali's shift to Republicans in his later years was tied to his religious beliefs. He was neither a tool of Democrats or Republicans.
Before his death, Ali challenged Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's anti-Muslim bigotry, telling NBC: “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Ali's Black pride was his biggest impact on people of African descent across the world. For African Americans, his example of pride and freedom, strength and self-identification as nobody's tool is why he was so loved. Few Black figures in sports or other fields had such an impact.
A citizen of the world, Ali represents what his life became — a Free Black Man against all odds.
[Malik Miah is a long-time socialist and anti-racist activist. He edits Against the Current.]