By Kehinde Andrews
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today. Black people who are living on welfare, Black people who can’t eat, Black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, Black people who don’t have no future.”
Muhammad Ali was the greatest. You can debate who was best in the ring was forever, but there will never be a sportsperson who had such an impact on Black people and politics again. Ali was the ideal icon, and the perfect time who came to embody the Black power era, with his politics, charm and attitude, drawing support from across the Diaspora.
Ali shocked the boxing world in 1964 when he beat out Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. He shook up the rest of the world when he joined the Nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali. He explained ‘Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people using it when speaking to me and of me.’
Ali came to represent what Malcolm X called the ‘new type of Negro on the scene. This type doesn’t call himself a Negro. He calls himself a Black man. He doesn’t make any apology for his Black skin’. Black politics of the era was about standing tall, building for ourselves and not having to compromise to keep White folk happy. Ali was unapologetically ‘Black, confident and cocky’. He destroyed the script of the Black athlete and told the world they would have to ‘get used to me’. Before Malcolm split with the Nation, the two were very close, and Malcolm’s influence on Ali is unmistakeable, and Ali was the perfect vehicle for Malcolm’s message: ‘too Black, too strong’, in the flesh.
The landmark symbol of his resistance was when he refused the draft for the Vietman war, not only risking his career but also his freedom. It is impossible to underestimate how powerful a move this resistance was, it cost him the prime years of his boxing life and turned the mainstream public against him, at a time when the sport was one of the most popular in the world. But Ali was upfront and unapologetic: ‘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’.
It is this politics, this resistance that has seared Ali into Black consciousness around the globe, drawing support from all corners of the Diaspora including Britain. In August, 1983 Mohammed Ali came to Birmingham, UK to open a sports centre that had been named after him. It was one of those events that everyone says they were there, so important it is in the history and mythology of the Black community here. I even feel like I remember it, though I was a baby at the time. It just shows the importance of Ali to Black British communities. He fought long before I was born but is without doubt the most influential sports figure I can remember, and his poster was the first I hung on my wall at university.
Even as he hung on in boxing too long and Parkinson’s took away his physical domination, the strength and determination in Ali always stood out. Olympic opening ceremonies are usually tedious exercises in pageantry but the one in Atlanta 1996 will be remembered forever. Ali fought off the shaking from his Parkinson’s to light the torch in the stadium; ‘too Black, too strong’.
The challenge for us now, is to rebuild the politics based on Ali’s legacy. The story of the Muhammad Ali centre in Birmingham could stand as a metaphor for the politics of Black power. Once proud, vibrant and optimistic, it now stands empty, derelict and abandoned. In all the tributes that will pour out to him on his death, we should honour him by rebuilding the politics of his life.
In his outspokenness and refusal to back down he became an icon for Black communities across the world who were tired of having to grudgingly accept racism and abuse. It is for this this legacy that should always be remembered, and we should use to continue to inspire current and future generations of Black people worldwide.