There have been few moments like Muhammad Ali stepping out of the shadows to take the Olympic torch from Janet Evans at the 96 Summer Games. It is fitting he lit the eternal flame that is the Olympic torch because his light is an eternal flame that will continue to shine long after his death.
Ali was not only a famous athlete, he was one of the most famous people on the planet. He will go down as one of the most well-known people to ever live. We are mourning his loss while celebrating his life. Of course, Ali made some difficult choices in his life that led him to not only be vilified, but lose his livelihood as well. During the height of athletic popularity, he was disliked by many for his views and social action.
Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War influenced Dr. King’s own opposition to the war. His vocal support of women’s rights gave Billie Jean King the courage she needed to be a pioneer for equal rights for women. Ali gave courage to oppressed people to come together and not stand for oppression any longer. The former Cassius Clay converted to Islam and became Muhammad Ali, not a popular decision at the time. Ali did not test the political winds to see what might be prudent from a person in his position, rather he let his conscience and his calling from God lead him.
Hear these words from Ali himself:
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 been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality….”
In a culture that adored black athletes while criminalizing them for their skin color, Ali stood up and said “No.” Some athletes happen to be role models. Ali was a role model who happened to be an athlete.
Would we listen to Muhammad Ali today? Not the beloved Ali figure of his later years, but the Ali of the late 60s and the 70s who challenged assumptions, societal norms and social structures. Would we adore the Ali who made unpopular calls for justice and righteousness? Would we appreciate someone who challenged us, even if we didn’t agree with them?
Inside a boxing ring, Muhammad Ali is the greatest of all time. However, it is outside the ring where he may have very well left his mark. Rest in peace, Champ, rest in peace.