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Pugilist-poet Ali's race legacy still packs a punch

Fatima Measham |  07 June 2016


The contest over Muhammad Ali began even as news spread of his passing.

Muhammad Ali fightingAmid solemn recollection were the contrarian takes: regarding his name (here and here), the claim that he said far more racist things than Donald Trump, and that his death was being politicised.

Perhaps such contests fit the man. In death as in life, he defies distillation.

Muhammad Ali was a pugilist-poet. He was as intimidating in front of the microphone as he was in the boxing ring. The cadence of his speech, the sting in his rhyme, the lilt in his wit — he delivered knockouts bare-knuckled. His style, according to Rolling Stone, is in the hip-hop DNA.

His legend straddles the violence of his sport and the violence in which he refused to participate. Boxing can be brutal but it has rules and finite duration. In war, there are no rules and no one wins. Ali recognised a larger violence, chose his enemies, and reimagined bravery.

The attempts to sublimate this legacy — such as comments about him 'transcending' race — resemble the systematic appropriation of Martin Luther King Jr by conservatives.

Dr King is often positioned in polarity against Malcolm X, as a nonviolent pacifist. In truth, both carried radical demands, employed disruptive methods, and were treated as dangerous by authorities. Muhammad Ali was not only their contemporary, but cut through black ideological divides.

Ali was only in his 20s during the civil rights era. He grew up at a time when in many states, blacks were virtually barred from public life. They were forced to enter the rear door of buses and establishments. They could not sit down at certain restaurants or movie theatres. In southern states, voting was made as difficult as possible for them to do.


"The grandson of a slave, his career ascending at time when blacks were being shot in their struggle for non-discrimination, he never let white America forget that he was black and Muslim."


Then, and perhaps even now, sport was one of few areas in which a black man could be seen to participate and succeed. Ali breached the terms of that success. He wasn't grateful. He wasn't apologetic. He was loud and confrontational. The grandson of a slave, his career ascending at time when blacks were being shot in their struggle for non-discrimination, he never let white America forget that he was black and Muslim. 'I am America,' he declared. 'I am the part you won't recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own.' He would not be owned. He wasn't for taming.

His words were largely addressed to a white audience, but a black audience heard them, too. The late Lawrence Guyot, a prominent Mississippi activist, described the effect: 'We were down there in these small, hot, dusty towns in an atmosphere thick with fear, trying to organise folk whose grandparents were slaves. And here was this beautifully arrogant, young man who made us proud to be us and proud to fight for our rights.'

As Dave Zirin wrote recently in The Nation: 'What Muhammad Ali did — in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolises black athletes while criminalising black skin — was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivise the very idea of courage.' Ali's life was, perhaps above all, about giving others permission to defy.

Later on, he remained engaged with the world through humanitarian and philanthropic work, including helping to secure the release of 15 American prisoners in Iraq in 1990.

Only six years later at the Atlanta Olympics, the world first saw Parkinson's syndrome manifest in his body, cameras catching the tremble in his hands when he lit the flame. The man who once embodied athletic grace and revelled in his vanity, fronted up, shamelessly frail — reimagining again for us what it takes to be brave.

Muhammad Ali was not someone that could be contained, and it is likely a mistake to suppose that death makes him so, when he still has something to say to current generations who now contend with the challenges of not being white in America.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.



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Submitted comments

One fact about Muhammad Ali that is incontRovertible: he could box.

John 07 June 2016

I think that Muhammad Ali has much to contribute to the issues that affect us now and I would like to see someone highlight the legal case that led Muhammed Ali to fight against his conscription to the Vietnam War. From what I gathered from the movie "Muhammed Ali's Greatest Fight",he was exempted because his defence appeare d to be that black muslims opposed ALL wars on religious grounds and that if there was a holy war - Allah must sanction that war or words to that effect, and he also seemed to be exempted because in his defence he said that he could not take up arms. This case raises many questions for us today. For instance, if Allah, is the ultimate authority for muslims , then he is not physically alive to sanction the religious war waged by Islamic State and therefore the war is a form of blasphemy or heresy. Another question would be if Muhammad Ali were alive, would he side with the defence and words he put forward in this case against conscription to the Vietnam War.

Roz 07 June 2016

One of the best pieces I've read on this great man...this secular saint. Thanks.

Peter Goers 08 June 2016

Ali was a great role figure for young people all over the world; certainly for me as I grew up a decade behind him. What has especially struck me was one of his moral defences against joining the US army: "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger". This re-telling of Jesus`s parable of looking for the log in your own eye before attacking others, was so perfect for the times.

Eugenew 08 June 2016

A good piece on an extraordinary man, but unfortunate choice of headline; what is a 'race legacy'?

Myrna 08 June 2016

Wars can be won! WWii is a very good example but maybe you are too young to realise that evil was conquered in 1945

E. Christe 10 June 2016

As a follow up to Roz's comment - my understanding of Ali's opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War was based on his thoughts: "“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,” he said at the time. “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.”

Aurelio 11 June 2016

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