From The Ramparts
Junious Ricardo Stanton
Muhammad Ali, Our Champion
"Float like a butterfly sting like a bee rumble young man rumble" - Bundini Brown exhorting Muhammad Ali
One of the most charismatic athletes of the twentieth century is a Black man who was born and originally named Cassius Clay but later changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He burst onto the international scene as a boxer during the 1960 Rome Olympics where he distinguished himself in the light heavyweight division because of his fluid style, hand quickness and radiant personality. Prior to going to Rome Ali had won the AAU amateur boxing championship in 1959.
The Rome Olympics catapulted Clay into the national consciousness. Americans love a winner, especially one who wins for the country which Clay did as the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal Champion. Doors opened quicker for him because of his Olympic success. Due to his fame, skills and work ethic he was able to rise up to become a contender in the heavyweight division.
Clay joined the Nation of Islam lead by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and was tutored by Malcolm X. He changed his name while training for his heavyweight championship fight with Sonny Liston. The world was shocked by this young man's brashness and style. Liston was the champion but he was far less charismatic and articulate compared to his younger opponent and the press flocked around Clay (Ali) as he put on a show in and out of the ring. After he successfully dethroned Liston in 1964 he announced to the world he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
The impact of Ali's membership in the Nation of Islam was huge. It occurred at a time when the Civil Rights struggle was intensifying and the separatist philosophy of the NOI differed sharply with the assimilationist views of the mainstream Civil Rights leaders. But its message of do for self, Black pride and militancy resonated with large numbers of everyday Black folks. The Vietnam War was escalating and the nation was torn between the imperialist policies of the US government and the growing resistance and peace movements. Ali was pressured by the establishment to support war like champions and celebrities before him had done.
As a young man Ali was bound to register for the military draft. He was drafted into the military in 1966 but refused induction on April 29, 1967 on grounds of being a conscientious objector and a follower of Elijah Muhammad. Ali put a racial and geo-political spin on his very public refusal to be inducted when 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..."
By taking that courageous stand Ali's prestige rose even higher among most younger Blacks. But he was vilified and demonized by the white establishment; the same establishment who cheered him when he won the gold medal in Rome. As punishment they stripped Ali of his title, took his boxing license and his passport to prevent him from continuing to speak out against what he felt was a racist and unjust war. He was convicted of evading the draft and sentenced to five years in prison and fined $ 10,000. At that time with the exception of Martin Luther King Jr. very few Black leaders publically opposed the war. Nonetheless Ali stood his ground..
He appealed his conviction, his case went all the way to the US Supreme Court which finally overturned his conviction on religious grounds. His tenacity and his willingness to fight for his beliefs earned him the respect of millions around the world. His next challenge was to try to get his license back so he could box professionally again. Ali was successful and this led to a series of celebrated bouts against the best fighters of his era. To his credit, Ali never ducked an opponent. His fights with Joe Frazier were legendary in their intensity and fiery but he also fought all the greats of his day: Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Ken Norton, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Leon Spinks, George Foreman and Larry Holmes to name a few.
Ali's popularity grew over the years and he eventually overcame the animus many held against him for not going into the US Army and for being a Muslim. Ali was a celebrated figure around the world and remained famous for decades after he retired. To me and most of my peers growing up in the 1960's, Muhammad Ali was a true hero. Ali fought the system and won. He showed us it was possible for a Black man to stand for something and have the courage of your convictions. That is why so many honor him to this day.
In later years, Ali suffered from Parkinson's Disease a debilitating neurological condition which impacted his ability to speak which must have been frustrating for him because he loved to talk and be the center of attention everywhere he went. Despite his illness, Ali was still admired and respected until he made his transition on June 3, 2016. Muhammad Ali is still our champion.