The Whitewashing of Muhammad Ali

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):

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.”

–Daniel Berrigan

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.



10 thoughts on “The Whitewashing of Muhammad Ali

  1. The problem is that American capitalism eventually coopts everything. Feminism was once a radical movement. Now it’s being used to defend Wall Street. John Lewis was so radical in the early 1960s that his speech at the March on Washington was censored. In the early 19th Century, evangelical Christianity was a movement of the left. We all know what it’s like now.

    I think the fixation on Ali’s being “white washed” misses part of the point about how he’s been coopted. Like feminism, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is now being used to defend the establishment, used as a club by old Boomer racists like the Clintons to beat down the younger generation. Ali’s black separatism actually makes him especially vulnerable to being coopted, unlike, for example, Malcolm X, who transcended black separatism and became an anti-imperialist revolutionary.

    Being black these days is still to be subjected to white supremacy, but it’s also been commercialized. We can all go out and buy the latest Beyonce album, or watch her tribute to Black Lives Matter during the Super Bowl half time show. What made Ali radical was his opposition to the war in Vietnam, not his name change. Unlike today’s John Lewis, who’s defending warmonger Hillary Clinton, Ali extended his “circle of empathy” beyond black Americans to the Vietnamese. Yes, racists will still call him “Cassius Clay.” But Donald Trump’s America is fast becoming Hillary Clinton’s America, and Hillary Clinton’s America is very comfortable complaining about “white washing” and putting the elites of non-white cultures on a pedestal.


    1. To be a bit more clear about that, the establishment’s insistence on simply ignoring Ali’s black nationalism I think comes from the way Ali seemed to conduct himself on two levels. There was the public Ali, who made pronouncements in the 1960s against racism, but generally displayed no hostility towards white people. There was the private Ali, who was a black separatist who turned his back on Malcolm X just before his assassination (and Malcolm X didn’t just die, he was murdered).

      So as Ali lost the vitality of his youth and as the United States become more and more multicultural and less openly racist, the establishment just ignored the private Ali, celebrated the public Ali, and threw his protest against the Vietnam War down the memory hole. The threat that Ali represented in the 1960s came from his being a young man. When he grew old and become more and more debilitated, that threat faded.


      1. The “fixation” you say is actually my casual observation of all the tributes to Ali. From twitter, Facebook, to obituaries published by different publications in the MSM (Guardian, Independent, NYT, WaPo and of course you can count on The Daily Mail to dig up dirt on his family and others) and the odd dead-naming, even by some random lady on my Facebook referred to his “slave name” when she wrote a ‘tribute’ to him. This is why I explored the topic. I wasn’t jumping on some mainstream bandwagon.
        I agree that his legacy is being or has been coopted but a lot of it is circumstance and a lot of it is also American capitalism and the need to ‘market’ everything. The circumstances are that he could no longer speak for himself. His mobility and ability to communicate was diminished (though his mind as sharp as ever) and he didn’t have a strong enough surrogate who could truly communicate his thoughts and deliver them in the manner that is effective. His plethora of children, for one reason or another didn’t our couldn’t pick up his mantle, it’s not their obligation or duty to continue their father’s legacy or activism, but the point is no one could speak for him effectively in the way he’d like to be heard, and he spoke in a very specific way.

        RE: To be a bit more clear about that, the establishment’s insistence on simply ignoring Ali’s black nationalism I think comes from the way Ali seemed to conduct himself on two levels. There was the public Ali, who made pronouncements in the 1960s against racism, but generally displayed no hostility towards white people.

        I disagree here, Ali had plenty of hostility towards white people, the video clip comparing white people to rattle snakes comes to mind, and how he ended his explanation for the need for black separatism by saying white people don’t want us, don’t like us, so it’s fine, we’ll be over there. He continued to fight for too long, much after than he should, I am not sure what the motivation is, probably financial because if you hear him talk about boxing, he wasn’t too enamoured with it either, he was good at it, he liked competing and KO people out, but as for a true love for the sport of boxing, it seemed like he fell into it.
        Malcolm X was a whole other phenomena altogether, Ali and X may share black separatism but their platforms are totally different. And X was tragically gunned down in his prime – murdered. Ali deeply regretted turning his back on his friend and it was one of his life’s regrets and he hasn’t many, but from the materials I read what I gather is that Ali felt that fundamentally X leaving NOI is justified and that Elijah Muhammad was corrupt and that he was raping young girls, but I think Ali felt, for the sake of black unity and during those turbulent times, it wasn’t best to wash your linen in public. Meaning he felt that X could leave NOI but quietly and don’t go tell the world why. This is what I got from it. It’s not that Ali thought Elijah Muhammad’s actions were ok as Ali left NOI not long after and converted to orthodox Sunni Islam (I don’t know what sect of Islam NOI was). This is just my humble opinion.

        The Civil Rights Movement in general has been coopted to only represent one stream and that is the MLK nonviolent narrative when there were in fact lots of narratives going on at the same time, but the MLK one is the one that is most palatable to the establishment, it fits in with the narrative that they want to represent the Civil Rights Movement. A Christian movement, a non-violent movement which demands integration with white people. The black separatist legacy sort of got airbrushed out, and also in the 70s the government actively cracked down on black nationalists and threw them in jail. So, there’s that too.

        I think much of this whitewashing has to do with modern Islamophobia on top his radical politics. Establishment wants to forget that he was Muslim and if he were, he was Muslim in name only. I think if he could speak, he would have lots to say and he’d express it in his very colorful ways about Islamophobia and the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no way he could sit here and see Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others get shot or fatally injured by police and not have strong feelings about them.


        1. re: I disagree here, Ali had plenty of hostility towards white people, the video clip comparing white people to rattle snakes comes to mind,:

          He did it with a smile though. And he regularly appeared in the white, corporate media media. So there really were two sides to Ali.

          re: The black separatist legacy sort of got airbrushed out, and also in the 70s the government actively cracked down on black nationalists and threw them in jail. So, there’s that too. ”

          The Black Panthers were not black separatists, FWIW. They were Marxists. Had they been black separatists I don’t think the FBI would have gone after them to the same extent. They would have been much less of a threat.

          I think what Ali and the Black Panthers did have in common was anti-imperialism. The Panthers sold Little Red Books on the campus at Berkeley to buy money for guns. Ali supported the Vietnamese. Black separatism is much less threatening, especially to white people (who often support the idea of people “staying with their own kind”).

          I suppose what I’m trying to express is that we can’t understand Ali if we turn it into something along the lines of “sorority girls shouldn’t war Indian headresses” or “white people shouldn’t write thinkpieces on Beyonce.”

          Not saying you’re doing that but that would be the flip side of racists calling him Casius Clay.


          1. Re: I suppose what I’m trying to express is that we can’t understand Ali if we turn it into something along the lines of “sorority girls shouldn’t war Indian headresses” or “white people shouldn’t write thinkpieces on Beyonce.”
            Not saying you’re doing that but that would be the flip side of racists calling him Casius Clay.
            Kind of got lost there. I am simply saying, forget race, religion, gender etc. It’s simply rude and bad manners when someone has gone to great lengths to change their name and have asked people, politely, to not refer to one’s old name, they shouldn’t! To do so is a form of aggression. In this case, it’s racism (because Cassius Clay is a slave name to him) and disregard of his religious faith and conviction. To make it even simpler, say a woman got married and divorced and post divorce she wishes to go back to her maiden name, people should refer to her maiden name regardless if she’s used her married name for the last 20 years, now she wants to be known by her maiden name and those who refuse are just being assholes.
            He may have said it with a smile, because it was funny, specifically the rattlesnake interview, the interviewer, who was white, didn’t think it was funny. In fact watching his face and reaction was enough. 🙂


    2. Ali was a fake muslim. He was a philanderer, had many wives, girlfriends, even getting a child pregnant at 15. Yea amazing muslim…he didnt avoid the draft for strong political and race reason, he avoided for financial reasons. He was also extremely unintelligent and illiterate and couldn’t think for himself there for relying on the Nation of Islam to direct him throughout his life.


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