Thousands are expected to gather in Louisville, Kentucky, later this week for the funeral of an American icon: Muhammad Ali, considered by many to be the greatest boxer of all time.
Ali died at age 74 in Phoenix last Friday from respiratory complications after a long fight with Parkinson's disease, but he will be remembered for more than just his lightning-fast fists and dexterous footwork. Outside the ring, he was a champion of civil rights, a proud Muslim, a fierce critic of racism, and one of the most outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War.
After Ali's death on Friday, his biographer Thomas Hauser wrote that the boxing legend "stood as a beacon of hope for oppressed people around the world and an embodiment of the principle that, unless you have a very good reason for killing people, war is wrong."
The grandson of a slave, Ali was raised Kentucky during the height of the Jim Crow era. Throughout his childhood and in his early years a fighter, segregation remained a deeply entrenched way of life in the South.
"In the early 1960s, from Texas across to Florida and up to Maryland, African-Americans could not use a public toilet, we could not eat at [a] restaurant along the highway, we could not breathe," civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. wrote on Saturday. "Most people adjusted. Most people said nothing, they found their place, swallowed their resentment, their contempt, their anger. Muhammad Ali was not most people. Neither was Rosa Parks nor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr."
Ali first rose to fame when he took home the gold medal at the Olympics in Rome in 1960 when he was just 18 years old.
At an interview later with Michael Parkinson, in 1971, Ali recalled how strange it felt to be an American sports hero who continued to face discrimination because of the color of his skin:
I took my gold medal, thought I'd invented something. I said, "Man, I know I'm going to get my people freedom now. I'm the champion of the whole world, the Olympic champion. I know I can eat downtown now."
And I went downtown that day, had my big old medal on and went in a restaurant. See, at that time, like, things weren't integrated; black folks couldn't eat downtown. And I went downtown, I sat down, and I said, "You know, a cup of coffee, a hot dog." He said—the lady said, "We don't serve Negroes." I was so mad, I said, "I don't eat them, either. Just give me a cup of coffee and a hamburger."
You know, and I said, "I'm the Olympic gold medal winner. Three days ago, I fought for this country in Rome. I won the gold medal. And I'm going to eat." The manager—heard her tell the manager, and she says—he said, "Well, I'm not the—I'm not the man—he's got to go out." Anyway, I didn't raise—they put me out. And I had to leave that restaurant, in my home town, where I went to church and served in their Christianity, and fought—my daddy fought in all the wars. Just won the gold medal and couldn't eat downtown. I said, "Something's wrong."
Ali became friends with civil rights icon Malcolm X in the late 1950s, and eventually joined the Nation of Islam, an African-American congregation that is vehemently anti-white and black separatist. Two days after he took reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston's crown in 1964 at a fight in Miami Beach, the new champ formally renounced his "slave name" — Cassius Clay — and became Muhammad Ali.
He said his birth name was politically loaded — reminiscent of slavery and the brutality of turning a profit on black bodies.
Three years later, Ali famously refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War.
"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big, powerful America," Ali said in 1967. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father….Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people. Just take me to jail."
After Ali was drafted, he publicly declared himself as conscientious objector, citing religious reasons. "War is against the teachings of the Holy Quran," he said. "I'm not trying to dodge the draft."
But Ali's local draft board in Louisville, Kentucky, rejected his request to be classified as a conscientious objector. He was sentenced to five years in prison, slapped with a $10,000 fine, and banned from boxing for three years. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, but managed to stay out of jail while he appealed his conviction. Four years later, the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction.
Ali's radical approach to civil rights often set him apart from other celebrities of his time, particularly in the world of sports. Hauser said that it was "popular among those in the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement to take the 'safe' path… Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, and other courageous men and women were subjected to economic assaults, violence, and death when they carried the struggle 'too far.' But the road they traveled was designed to be as nonthreatening as possible for white America. White Americans were told, 'All that black people want is what you want for yourselves. We're appealing to your conscience.'
"Then along came Ali," Hauser continued, "preaching not 'white American values,' but freedom and equality of a kind rarely seen anywhere in the world. And as if that wasn't threatening enough, Ali attacked the status quo from outside of politics and the accepted strategies of the Civil Rights Movement."
Many say that Ali's constant boldness and unrelenting self-respect helped propel the civil rights movement.
"One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear," said sportscaster Bryant Gumbel. "And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage."
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