“CASSIUS Clay is my slave name…I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me”
On 3 June 2016, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74, after years of suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He was a boxer par excellence, but he much more too. His own boxing mantra was “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He collected every boxing glory that was, and yet this iconic boxer was more than willing to stake and give up everything that an adoring boxing world handed over to him. The medals, the laurels, the titles and championships (and there were indeed many of them) were in his mind no excuse for remaining silent on either racism in American society, or on US imperial wars for global domination. Indeed, his life and his legacy are intrinsically connected to his courageous voice of resistance and his willingness to stand up and be counted when it mattered the most. Whichever cap he chose to don – boxer, actor, singer – Ali’s defiance and his attempts to build an America which truly stood for liberty and equality was apparent.
Muhammad Ali was born in Kentucky on 17 January 1942 as Cassius Clay – a name which he later renounced and famously referred to as his ‘slave’ name. He was a descendent of slaves from the southern states of the US. Racial segregation defined the society which the young Cassius Clay encountered, where every action and even basic civil rights were circumscribed and mediated by the realities of gross racial prejudice and violence. His mother recalls that Clay was once denied a drink of water in a store, an incident that left a deep imprint on the young boy. In 1955, the Emmett Till lynching forcefully brought home to Clay brutal realities of deep-rooted racial hatred. The 14-year old Till was kidnapped and beaten up, his eyes were gouged out and he was shot. He was then thrown into the Tallahatchie river with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. This horrific lynching so infuriated Clay that he and a friend vandalised a local railyard in anger. It was these memories and these experiences which laid the foundation for a life-long opposition to racism, and a life-long effort to redefine the famed “American” way of life: he dreamt of an America that would not be defined by White-supremacist and Islamophobic imaginations.
As an 18-year old, he won a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics, and soon after converted to Islam. This embracing of Islam was avowedly a symbol of resistance, a political assertion, a denial of the legacy of racist hatred that he had been born into. During the vibrant civil rights movement in the 1960s in the US, he spoke of his conversion as an act of racial pride for African Americans. Black pride underlined the move, and was central to way he saw it. So much so, that he once almost came to blows over the name issue in an interview with fellow boxer Terrell, who repeatedly referred to him as Cassius Clay to infuriate him. Like Malcolm X, who was once his political mentor, he was affiliated with the Nation of Islam and their black separatist ideology. Later, again like Malcolm X, he disassociated himself from the Nation of Islam and moved towards Sunni Islam.
Black pride also defined Ali’s opposition to US’s imperialist wars abroad. In the mid-1960s, he became one of the most vocal and well-known dissenters to the Vietnam War. At the peak of his boxing career at that time, he riled the US establishment by refusing to join the US army to fight the long and bloody war against the Vietcong. “Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…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?", he asked Americans, with devastating effect. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. He was systematically denied a boxing license in several states in the US, and in addition his passport was confiscated. It was only in 1971, after a long legal battle, that he his conviction was finally overturned. This moment of conscious dissent by a well-known athlete ensured that Muhammad Ali became a global icon for the anti-war movement; it is indeed one of the best known acts of defiance against US imperialism.
Later on too, Ali continued to voice his opposition to US imperialism and Israel’s racist genocidal agenda in the Middle East. In 1974, he openly declared support for the “Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland”. And in 1978, he was part of the famous protest march in the US, the Longest Walk, where he, Stevie Wonder and Marlon Brando marched demanding rights for native Americans in the US. Again, in 1988 at the height of the Palestinian resistance, he participated in a rally in Chicago in support of Palestine.
For Ali, the world of poetry and music too was to be used as a tool for political defiance: he was known for the political poetry in his activism, he recorded two albums of poetry and a rhythm and blues song. He received two Grammy award nominations too, and performed in several films and a Broadway musical. He also wrote two autobiographies.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, probably arising from his several boxing bouts. It was in this period that Ali came closer to the US establishment, announcing his support for the re-election of Ronald Reagan as US President, stating that Reagan was “keeping God in schools”. In 2002, he went to Afghanistan as the UN Messenger of Peace – even as the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued.
But sparks of anti-racist, anti-imperialist Muhammad Ali could not be extinguished. In 2014, in the midst of the massive protests in the US against killings of several young black men by police, Ali spoke out in support of Trayvon Martin and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Ali stands out as a unique example of a sportsperson who has the courage of conviction to speak out for justice, whatever the consequences. In India and elsewhere in the world, where such brave voices are indeed rare, where the rich and the famous either openly collude or prefer to remain silent in the face of blatant violence and discrimination, Muhammad Ali will be remembered and badly missed. In a world where the dangerous and deadly imaginations of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and the RSS pose a formidable challenge, Muhammad Ali will inspire us to challenge the status quo.