Muhammad Ali’s death marks the passing of one the greatest sports icons and cultural figures of the 20th century. Yet Ali’s most enduring legacy remains his bold political resistance against the Vietnam War, a controversial stance that thrust him into the center of the maelstrom of the era’s racial, political, and cultural storm. As Cassius Clay, the “Louisville Lip,” struck the world as a bracingly insouciant figure, a loquacious 22 year-old boxer who defied odds-makers and skeptics by defeating Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world and the self-proclaimed “greatest.”
Behind public displays of bravado Clay formed a deep friendship with the black radical leader Malcolm X, secretly joined the Nation of Islam, and adopted the name of Muhammad Ali — a gift bestowed by the “Messenger” Elijah Muhammad as the finishing touch in a power struggle between the apostate Malcolm. To his later regret, Ali’s distanced himself from Malcolm after his former mentor’s increasingly messy departure from the group.
In short order however, Muhammad Ali found himself in many ways adopting the political radicalism of the times. Black Power-era radicalism framed the Vietnam War as an exemplar of American imperialism while the heavy number of black draftees illustrated the depth and breadth of institutional racism. Ali became fast friends with the radical movement’s spokesman, Stokely Carmichael, and they bonded over their shared reputations as mavericks.
In 1967, at a time when most people favored the war, Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the military shocked and angered white America. Scorned as unpatriotic for his political beliefs and demonized for his religion, he would soon be stripped of his heavyweight title and disallowed from practicing his trade and making a living.
Over the next seven years Muhammad Ali embarked on a political odyssey that transformed him into a revolutionary cultural figure whose open defiance of US foreign policy made him a traitor to some and a hero to others. A star speaker on the college lecture circuit, Ali braided a discussion on black history, resistance against white supremacy, and a critique of war and racial violence into an exhilarating seminar that made him an enduring symbol of late 1960s era radicalism.
Muhammad Ali became America’s first unapologetically ‘black’ superstar. His growing fame, based as much on his political stances as his athletic prowess, drew newfound strength from the black quotidian. His defiant struggle against American legal, legislative, and political authorities mirrored domestic and global movements against racial, economic, and colonial oppression. Millions saw parts of themselves in the brash ex-champion and Ali recognized the struggles to guarantee black citizenship and humanity around the world as his life’s mission.
At the moment of his greatest professional crisis, Ali sought and found unremitting grace through service to a larger purpose than himself.
Allowed to fight again in 1970 by a Supreme Court decision, but robbed of four years of his athletic prime, Ali defied long odds to regain his heavyweight title in 1974. Slowed down by Parkinson’s disease after his retirement from boxing in 1981, Ali transitioned into a human rights activist, Olympic torch-bearer, and a living legend embraced by the same country that once despised him.
Mainstream media that once vilified Ali as a traitor now praised him as an outspoken individual in the best tradition of American democracy. Corporate sponsors that once shunned him embraced Ali as a quintessential sports hero whose comeback illustrated the strength and resiliency of our national character. The political establishment that reviled him during the Vietnam War era fawned over the aging lion as if they had loved him his entire life. The young Ali — a prophet whose country failed to recognize him — had become, through the passage of time and the fading of memory — a figure safe enough to be universally recognized as a legend and adored for his youthful exploits.
The details of Muhammad Ali’s journey from gifted young boxing champ to the demonized radical anti-war and Black Power activist all the way to his final incarnation as an aging sports legend has been obscured with the passage of time. Our collective historical amnesia has smoothed the rough edges from this brilliantly flawed, yet heroically courageous activist and icon. Hailed as an oracle of boldness retrospectively, Ali withstood the loss of his reputation, livelihood, and liberty to pursue larger freedom dreams that America and the world have yet to attain, but that his own journey helped to exemplify.Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “Stokely: A Life.”