Almost everyone will agree that Muhammad Ali was a great boxer – “the greatest”, in his own words. But he wasn’t just a great boxer, he was a great man.
He fought not just with his fists, but also with his words. He used his fame and reputation to champion justice and the rights of the black community, making him a hero for every generation. Ali strove throughout his life for the ideals that he held dear. He may not have been the most modest of men, but he certainly was a radical, as the following eight quotations demonstrate.
1. ” See, we have been brainwashed. Everything good and of authority was made white. We look at Jesus, we see a white man with blonde hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels, we see white with blonde hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure if there’s a heaven in the sky and the colored folks die and go to heaven, where are the colored angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white!”
This quotation comes from an excellent speech given by Ali at Howard University in 1967. He shows, here, the systemic inequalities and prejudices in societies across the West – prejudices that, whether subconscious or not, are still worryingly prevalent in the 21st Century. The speech has now become known as his ‘Black is Best’ speech because of the way he railed against these prejudiced stereotypes and fought for the recognition of black people’s achievements. “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the fruit,” he once said.
2. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No 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… I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality… I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
One of the things that Ali is most famous for, other than his boxing, was for his public stance against the Vietnam War in 1966. He refused to fight for moral reasons, despite knowing that his refusal could cost him his boxing titles, his money, and even his liberty.
Ali’s anti-war stance led to him being banned from boxing for three years during what were probably his prime boxing years. During that time, he toured the world, speaking at universities and criticising the Vietnam War and racial oppression. He famously stated: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” In essence, he saw no need for the violence of war, finding more in common with the persecuted Vietnamese than many of his fellow Americans.
3. “I am America. 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; get used to me.”
Ali wasn’t one of the most modest men around. In fact, his arrogance and cockiness is partly what made him so well known around the world. It’s also what made him so important to the black community. He embodied a sense of pride, both racial and religious. He refused to apologise for his colour or his religion, and refused to succumb to submissive racial stereotypes. As he said, “I’m free to be what I want,” and he demanded that people “get used to” this.
4. “If I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.”
Ali was also an incredibly loving and compassionate person. When he went abroad to help people in need, he is said to have donated thousands of pounds. When asked why he had been so generous, he allegedly said it was because the money was worth so much more to the poor and the needy than it was to him. We can say with absolute certainty that Ali didn’t live in vain – he didn’t just change one life, he changed millions.
5. “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
One thing that isn’t as widely known as you might expect is that Ali was a Muslim. This is something Donald Trump didn’t realise when he ignorantly tweeted, “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who?” Muhammad Ali converted to Islam in the 1960s and was for a long time associated with The Nation of Islam, a group of African-American Muslims led by the likes of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad.
It was then that he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, rejecting his old name on the grounds that it stemmed from racial injustice and the slave trade – he said that his original name, Cassius Clay, meant ‘belonging to slave-owner Clay’. In changing his name, he was rejecting what he saw as the shackles of white supremacy, making himself a free man. He made this decision despite knowing the negative effect it might have on his boxing career.
6. “Hating people because of their colour is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which colour does the hating, it’s just plain wrong.”
Ali was often accused of being racist towards white people, but this quotation illustrates his opposition to all forms of racism. It was this opposition to racism that led to his refusal to fight in Vietnam, a war that he saw as partly fuelled by racism – as arguably all wars are, to an extent. Ali isn’t just an anti-racist hero for the black community; he is a hero for all those who believe in equality.
7. “To be able to give away riches is mandatory if you wish to possess them. This is the only way that you will be truly rich.”
This is an excellent example of the eloquence of Ali’s radical aphorisms. Here he shows yet again his compassion and firm belief that the key to happiness is not money or wealth, but kindness. Only by helping others will we have true wealth – spiritual wealth, that is!
8. “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.”
Again, Ali’s eloquence is beautiful. As a black man living in a deeply divided society, he was told time and time again that his dream of an equal and free future for the black community was impossible. But as Ali said on another occasion, “The man with no imagination has no wings.”
Ali never gave up on his hopes of a better world, and along with those great men and women of the civil rights cause – Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Marcus Garvey and many others – he made some progress in the achievement of his dream. Society may still be divided, unequal, and unjust, but Ali showed us that all of us have the power to speak out and change it. A true radical of our times.