Let’s Remember Muhammad Ali’s Radical Legacy

It would be criminal to allow Muhammad Ali’s legacy fall to revisionism and distortion as Dr. Martin Luther King’s over the years…

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. And shoot them for what? 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.
  • Muhammad Ali on the Vietnam War and his reasons for fighting his conscription

For years as I was growing up, people liked to trot out Dr. Martin Luther King’s iconic and legendary “I Have a Dream” speech but only in soundbites. It was always the part where Dr. King imagined a day where white children and black children could come together, regardless of the history of their ancestors, yet no one seemed to remember other aspects of his speech, like the disgust he expressed regarding black people suffering under the scourge of police brutality, or even the part where he mentioned that white people and black people’s fates are inextricably linked, hence the white allies in the crowd. I hate to admit that’s all I knew until I decided to do some research for myself. Only then did I realize that the most important aspects of Dr. King’s legacy were being purposefully whitewashed, softened, and hidden to hide the potency of his message.

Muhammad Ali was a skilled orator because he said what he felt and he said it from the heart. He was incredibly educated but not in the classical sense, which is fine, because the knowledge he had can’t be imbued upon one by sitting in a college classroom alone. Sometimes, it’s intrinsic and it’s a part of that person’s genetic makeup. I believe this was the case with Mr. Ali. Growing up, my family praised his skills, sure, but they praised his conviction, his willingness to fight outside of the ring against injustice and inequality in his own way. It wasn’t popular for him to do so. It wasn’t lucrative, either. He lost money, opportunities, and so much more for having the conviction to rail against imperialism and the Military Industrial Complex. Muhammad Ali embodied the American values so many of us often tout, but don’t actually appreciate or want to hear when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, a war that killed scores of men, women, and children on both sides while the sons and daughters of privilege sat at home and watched from the comfort of their Ivy League and ancestral home perches. Yes, Muhammad Ali had great soundbites and quips, but it’s his conviction and the fight in his heart and mind that really matter. Those are the qualities for which we should all evaluate ourselves. Would you be willing to risk it all and even lose it all for what was right?

Muhammad Ali didn’t care about respectability politics, being docile, or even sparing White America’s feelings in a time of incredible racism and bigotry. He said what had to be said because it was what Americans needed to hear. They may not have wanted it but he was right. And it is our responsibility to make sure that future generations don’t fall for revisionist history as time progresses because as we can see today, we need to remember that there are those who had the courage to fight against inequality, injustice, racism, etc.; that we need people to remind us to examine ourselves and our motives as a country so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.

When we lose heroes like Muhammad Ali we tend to forget that they were with us for a reason. We were graced with their presence so that we could learn from them and continue their fight. So let’s keep fighting for Muhammad Ali and all that he fought for while he was with us.

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