There are many stories about Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay in 1942 in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a domestic and a man who painted billboards. Born at the hinge of the south, he was spurred on to fight when his bicycle was stolen as a young man. His desire to “whup” the perpetrator led to him learning how to fight.
Although he was a gold medal winner in the 1960 Olympics, he famously tossed his medal in the Ohio river, the symbolic border between slavery and freedom because he was disillusioned with the inequality and disrespect that awaited him at home. Ali went on to spend the next decade engaged in his own fight for civil rights and equality braided with a fight for peace, religious freedom and principled objection.
Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most complicated and controversial figure in 20th-century sports and civil disobedience. He lost three years in the ring and lost his world title because he dared to say he wouldn’t shoot a man who never called him a “nigger”.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with no Vietcong” were words that inspired none other than Martin Luther King as he dared shift from domestic issues of justice and peace to those on an international scale. “You won’t even stand up for me at home and my religious beliefs …”
Muhammad Ali absorbed the best values of an era when African American men were standing up and defining themselves as never before. He was the third incarnation of the prize fighter as activist.
Before him, Jack Johnson challenged notions of white superiority and racial divides at the close of the nadir of black life when lynching was at its height. Joe Louis took on the darling of the Third Reich, Max Schmeling, and became a living superhero.
Ali took on the jingoistic hypocrisy of his America and refused to be a first-class champion subjected to second-class citizenship. Howard Cosell famously defended Ali saying he would not be another “white man’s black man” and in 1970, his conviction was overturned and he returned to the ring. He brought the dancing, rapping, fighting spirit of African America to the Congo to the roaring cry of “Ali bomaye!” He was hip-hop before hip-hop.
As a kid I remember watching film reels of a black conservative man hammering Ali with questions during a hearing and demanding that he use his given name. Ali, empowered by his embrace of black nationalism and the more universal doctrines of Nation of Islam, refused to answer to anything but the name he chose.
You forget how young he was, how brave he had to be, how unpopular his choices were and how his continuation of the tradition of prize-fighting as demonstration of kinaesthetic genius and poetry was novel and impactful. He was an inspiration to Mandela, Martin and Malcolm. He was no stereotype. He took his faith seriously, loved his children and in the words of Nobel prize laureate Toni Morrison’s account, he wasn’t brusque and disrespectful, he said “yes Ma’am,” and held doors like a gentleman. Of Ali, she noted with pride, “this man respects women”.
Twenty years ago, Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Weakened significantly from Parkinson’s, this signature moment did not fail to thrill the assembled crowds. More powerful than that moment was the torch he lit in all of us, to love ourselves, fight for what we believe in, fight to have our democracy put into practice what we preach, and dare to be “the Greatest”.
Michael W Twitty is a culinary historian and blogger at Afroculinaria
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