As news of Muhammad Ali’s passing was reported on Friday, fans and detractors alike offered their personal experiences as witnesses of his time on earth, and perspectives on the former champion’s legacy. When discussing Muhammad Ali’s life in totality, the two simplest and most resonant words are “great,” for what he certainly was, and “humble,” for what he certainly was not. A black man, this literal and figurative giant beating down the walls of Jim Crow America, standing proudly and telling the world, “I am the greatest. I said it before I knew I was,” was committing the ultimate defiant act of his time.
The descriptor “unapologetically black” has re-entered the American consciousness at a time when the masses are more socially aware than perhaps any time since the height of Muhammad Ali’s career in the mid-1970s. Given the celebrity status he was afforded, and the personal cost he accepted while being steadfast in his convictions, it’s difficult to think of many to whom the words “unapologetically black” apply better than Muhammad Ali.
The purest and most honest gift that Ali has left behind for his people is instilling the belief that they were each born to be as great as he was. Regardless of circumstance, surroundings, or opposition, black people should never question their own worth. Beyond that, he taught the world—both directly and through his actions—that the idea of required humility, especially false humility, is often a barrier placed around black people, as a way to limit their greatness.
To be black in America is to be constantly told to be humble. (This is true for more than just superstar athletes and entertainers.) What is really being asked for is submission: “Be humble” is a demand for silence disguised as a lesson in doing things “the right way.” It’s an order to mute the inner voice that confirms to black people that they are no lesser than anyone else. “Be humble” is the privileged telling black people that their successes in a system designed for their failure are not to be celebrated and the spoils of victory can be taken from them as soon as their innate self-esteem makes matters too uncomfortable. That’s why Muhammad Ali matters. He helped change the way black people of his generation, and those that followed, used their voices. He became adored for doing it during an era when the voices of loud, progressive black men and their allies were being silenced permanently, on hotel balconies in Memphis, in ballrooms in Harlem, and during motorcades through Dallas.
Boxing is the reason why we know who Muhammad Ali is, but it’s not the reason why we will continue to care for generations to come. Muhammad Ali’s life was of such magnitude, the fact that he was a three-time world heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist feels like a “by the way…” footnote to his life’s story.
Muhammad Ali spent decades looking America directly in its eyes—sometimes with an inviting smile, other times with a defiant glare—and told the country that it was wrong. He told white America that it established a status quo built on the war, genocide, racism and white supremacy, and that it would not stand. He told black America that the time had come to no longer accept second-class citizenship; that through pride, a knowledge-of-self, an understanding of history, and unified community spirit, African-Americans (and black people globally) could thrive and prosper in ways not seen for centuries.
Over time, much of the image of Muhammad Ali as a roaring black lion has been sanitized to one of a quietly dignified freedom fighter, or worse, nothing more than a comedian, or a source of motivational workout quotes. As his health declined following his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis in 1984, a false picture of Ali as the “people’s champ” was painted, when the idea of a unified America cheering him on couldn’t be farther from the truth. Muhammad Ali didn’t become America’s favorite athlete until he was no longer able to speak for himself. Even now, at the hour of his death, there’s a rush from media outlets and voices to portray Ali as a man who “transcended” race or religion, which is a ridiculous notion.
Not only was Ali acutely aware of his skin color and beliefs, he spent his entire adult life making sure that white America was as well, and telling them (without a filter) why he and his fellow black people mattered. To say otherwise is to lie, and an attempt to silence one of the most prominent pro-black voices of the latter 20th century. The national conversation seems to want to dilute Ali’s harsh critiques of an America that he, and millions of others, saw as putting whites above the rest of its citizens.
But as important as it is not to whitewash away Ali’s blackness or Islamic faith, it’s equally important not to portray him as a messianic figure among blacks. By no means was Muhammad Ali universally beloved among the people he so ardently fought for in and out of the ring. The manifestation of Ali’s blackness was always complicated.
During his association with the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali often said boldly that racial integration was a hindrance to black liberation; that black people were better served living independent of white culture and returning to a more traditional African and Arabic-influenced lifestyle, which he saw as superior to that of white Westerners, going as far as referring to whites as “devils.”
Leaning heavily on the teachings of close friend and spiritual advisor Malcolm X, and later Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad (who renamed him from his birth name, Cassius Clay), Ali espoused beliefs that ran in direct opposition to more popular mainstream Civil Rights Movement campaigns, like those of the largely Christian organizations lead by Dr. King, who he had an open dialogue with, particularly regarding the war. Ali's belief in the necessity of separate racial societies ran so deep that it caused a rift with Malcolm X. Ali’s separationist views would soften once he split from the NOI in 1975 and converted to Sunni Islam, as Malcolm X had done shortly before his murder in 1965.
Ali’s continued verbal abuse and unfair portrayal of famous rival and would-be blue collar hero Joe Frazier as an “Uncle Tom” who “works for the enemy” in the run-up to their classic 1971 fight has never sat right with many black boxing fans. Prior to their first fight, Frazier supported Ali both publicly and financially during his Vietnam War suspension. The characterization as a race traitor haunted Frazier for the remainder of his career and well beyond. In his later years, Ali acknowledged that his words did more personal and professional damage to Frazier than anything his fists could. “I hated Ali,” Frazier said. “God might not like me talking that way, but it's in my heart. I know things would have been different for me if he hadn't been around. I'd have gotten a lot more respect. I'd have had more appreciation from my own kind. Twenty years I've been fighting Ali, and I still want to take him apart piece by piece and send him back to Jesus."
Frequently, an iconic socio-political figure’s death leads to revisionism, and a delicate retelling of their story. An effort is made to scrub them clean, and make them more palatable. There is so much to parse when considering the fullness and complexity of whom Ali truly was, what he represented, and how he went about his own self-expression. Ali’s legacy isn’t merely knockouts, or trash talk, or contentious interviews with his media nemesis Howard Cosell, iconic as they were. History, be it textbooks or stories passed from parent to child, must remember “The Greatest” as a confident, unwavering, and imperfect agent of necessary societal change.
Kevin is a Digital Producer for Fusion. Some know him as @FriendlyFAUX. To those people, it's clear he could use a bit of guidance in his life.