Since the death of the Greatest One and as tributes pour in from all over the world, one trend is emerging and it’s disturbing. Muhammad Ali’s legacy is being whitewashed. His once anti-establishment politics have been retooled to fit the current narrative. His black separatist politics have all but been airbrushed out and what remains are the innocuous universally accepted place in history of being a ‘Civil Right’s Leader’ in the vein of Dr. Martin Luther King. Platitudes pour in from all over the world and all sides of the political spectrum lauding his ‘bravery’ yet they don’t seem to know exactly which acts of bravery they are talking about. That he’s being lumped together John Lewis, a sellout to Hillary Clinton, is dishonoring Ali’s legacy.
For some in the establishment, the fact that he was a Muslim has been reduced to a footnote, caving into the virulent Islamophobia. Ali, converting to Islam was just one of those things he did when he was young, it didn’t really mean that much in the greater context of his life–no–being Muslim meant everything to him, that was his life. His life changed when he became Muslim, he refused the draft on the basis of conscientious objection because he was Muslim. He changed his name after he became Muslim. And then there is the odd dead-naming of Ali. Upon his conversion to Islam in 1964, he has asked everyone to refer to him by his new name Muhammad Ali and to not refer to him by his “slave name”. Tennessee State Representative wrote in a tweet, which he’s since deleted (another coward):
Cassius Clay was a skilled, great boxer, but failure to to enlist in the US military when the call was made is black cloud on his character
— Rep. Martin Daniel (@RepMartinDaniel) June 4, 2016
In this short tweet, he mentioned his “slave name” which is blatant disrespect and that he failed to enlist in the US military. The representative from Tennessee must be confused about the facts. Ali didn’t fail to enlist. He refused to enlist. Ali didn’t dodge the draft, he refused the draft. People who use their money and status as protection to dodge the draft (such as former presidents Bush Jr., Clinton and Donald Trump) suffered no consequences for such cowardly actions. Ali suffered all the consequences for refusing the draft. He had to pay a $10,000 fine, which is a lot of money in 1966, he was sentenced to prison for 5 years but after successful appeals, his conviction was overturned. His world championships were stripped away, his passport was taken away, he was banned from travel, he was banned from competing at the prime of his career. He was routinely ‘bribed‘ by the government to recant and will be given cushy gigs in the army for doing so:
Ali was given every opportunity to recant, to apologize, to sign up on some cushy USO gig boxing for the troops and the cameras, to go back to making money. But he refused. His refusal was gargantuan because of what was bubbling over in US society. You had the black revolution over here and the draft resistance and antiwar struggle over there. And the heavyweight champ with one foot planted in both.
The government wanted the thorn that is Ali out of their sides. If they could get Ali to recant, apologize and serve in the military doing some non-combat cushy job (one where he won’t have to shoot Vietcongs), it would quell the antiwar movement. But again, Ali had “no quarrel with the VietCong…no VietCong ever called me N—–.”
For those that dodged the draft – many of them white upper and middle class boys, they usually made up an excuse as to why they couldn’t serve. The Vietnam War draft disproportionately affected black young men, who didn’t have the means and connection to dodge the draft. And Ali repeatedly pointed out, the government was sending black boys to shoot and bomb the Vietnamese all to protect the land they stole from the American Indians.
After his conviction in 1968 and after the death of his dear friend Malcolm X (of which they had a falling out over the Nation of Islam that never healed), the Nation of Islam abandoned him as well, he begun to give lectures on college campuses about resisting the draft and the antiwar movement in general:
I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam and at the same time my people here are being brutalized, hell no! I would like to say to those of you who think I have lost so much, I have gained everything. I have peace of heart; I have a clear, free conscience. And I am proud. I wake up happy, I go to bed happy, and if I go to jail I’ll go to jail happy.
From this short excerpt, Ali was happy to be a one man revolutionary. It didn’t matter if other people organized around him or not. Ali refusing the draft is more than just resisting white supremacy asking him to go kill the Vietnamese, it’s for his conscience as well. He had “peace of heart” which is a rare thing in those turbulent times.
Through FBI snooping and wiretapping, we find out that Muhammad Ali and Dr. King had privately formed a close friendship (to avoid the scrutiny from The Nation of Islam). In 1967, Dr. King came out in opposition of the Vietnam War as well, citing Muhammad Ali as a reason, realizing that the fight for civil rights and freedom for black people cannot be extricated from the morality of the Vietnam War. To fight for freedom for black people in America but then put on a uniform to go and bomb a small and poor nation under the false guise of fighting for their freedom is incongruous and hypocritical, what’s worse, the soldiers are carrying out the crimes of the white government for them.
Ali’s activism isn’t confined to United States. He spoke out against the apartheid government in South Africa, which the United States supported because it’s opposition the ANC (African National Congress) was deemed a communist group. He spoke out against the CIA installed, American puppet dictator of Zaire Mobutu Sese Seko. Ali spoke out against Israel in support for Palestinians. He also wanted to spread the message of Islam. His activism and sense of justice came from his religion:
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.…
For those of us who came of age in his physical decline (which happened before his old age), we see him as a trembling warrior ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease, no doubt from all those blows to the head and body. He first lost his mobility then his ability to speak. When he lit the torch for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, many radicals believed he sold out as the Olympics is a horribly saccharine, commercial and bourgeois event and riddled with corruption. I disagree. Being a sportsman was one of the many manifestations of his life. He was a sportsman before he was an activist. He was also a gold medalist in the 1960 Olympics. Sports along with activism was a huge part of his identity. Being a sportsman, when you strip away all the politics and identities behind it, is a test of your physical and mental strength and how you find out your true self within that context.
The whitewashing of Ali started long before his death. When became a Muslim under the leadership Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, a lot of civil rights activists then denounced the move, many believed that people should rally behind Dr. King as one movement, the Christian based non-violence movement which calls for integration with white people. The Nation of Islam was against integration, they were for black separatism.
Every fight after his name change became incredible morality plays of the black revolution versus the people who opposed it. Floyd Patterson, a black ex-champion wrapped tightly in the American flag, said of his fight with Ali, “This fight is a crusade to reclaim the title from the Black Muslims. As a Catholic I am fighting Clay as a patriotic duty. I am going to return the crown to America.”
But Ali’s public antiwar stance pleased the peace activists which at the time consisted of mostly white people:
“It was a major boost to an antiwar movement that was very white. He was not an academic, or a bohemian or a clergyman. He couldn’t be dismissed as cowardly.”
The establishment, instead of admitting that the Vietnam War was an evil and dirty war and its ultimate goal is to expand Western Imperialism in Asia, they accused all who opposed it as cowards, who were afraid of Vietcongs, who didn’t want to fulfill their patriotic duty and fight for their government. When Ali declared his refusal to be drafted, the antiwar movement was still a nascent fringe movement, ran by a few left wing radicals or ‘commie sympathizers’ as the government would all them.
Other black civil rights leaders such as Julian Bond may have their qualms about Nation of Islam but they were proud that Ali was sticking it to the government and called them out on their lies and motivations for the Vietnam War. Muhammad Ali dared to say what others daren’t, he had the courage to accept the consequences of his beliefs. If Ali did end up going to jail for resisting the draft, it is my belief that there will be protests and riots like we’ve never seen before.
For those of us who has only seen him as a frail old man, we have dig the history archives to read about his radicalism. His pride in being unapologetically black and Muslim. Those who say in their tributes that he transcended ‘race and religion’ which is code for they didn’t matter is again insulting him. Muhammad Ali was black and he was Muslim. He had no desire to transcend them.
And for the last time, his name is Muhammad Ali.