WASHINGTON – For Muhammad Ali, the idea of being a humble athlete — someone pre-packaged and palatable for white America — was never an option.
Instead, he demanded respect not only as a boxer but as a brash, unbought and unbossed black man and endeared himself to African-Americans as a symbol of black pride. He radiated courage and confidence, skill and showmanship.
“He became the incarnation of black defiance, black protest and black excellence at the same time,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime friend of Ali’s.
Ali, who died Friday at 74, gave voice to many blacks frustrated with a white society that asked them to fight communism in Vietnam but openly practiced segregation and discrimination at home.
“At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right,” said retired NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who like Ali converted to Islam. Abdul-Jabbar was among several prominent African-American athletes in the late 1960s who supported the boxer for his religious beliefs and as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
Unapologetically arrogant about his looks and his skills, Ali taunted opponents by reciting playful poetry and frequently declared himself “pretty” and “the greatest.”
Many people had never heard a successful black man talk about himself so boldly in front of whites. And it made a difference, Ali biographer Thomas Hauser said.
“Every time that Muhammad Ali looked in the mirror and said ‘I’m so pretty,” what he was really saying — before it became fashionable — is ‘black is beautiful,” Hauser said. “I can’t tell you how many people … have come up to me and said, ‘Before Muhammad Ali, I thought it was better to be white than black. I was ashamed of my color, and Ali made me proud. Ali made me just as happy to be black as somebody else being white.'”
Ali’s blackness infused everything he did and everything he was.
“If you wanted to make it in this country, you had to be quiet, carry yourself in a certain way and not say anything about what was going on, even though there was a knife sticking in your chest,” recalled the late black journalist Gil Noble in an essay written by Hauser.
“Ali changed all of that. He just laid it out and talked about racism and slavery and all of that stuff. He put it on the table. And everybody who was black, whether they said it overtly or covertly, said ‘Amen.'”
The day after winning his first world heavyweight championship, Ali announced he had joined the Nation of Islam and had shed his “slave” name of Cassius Clay. He refused to be drafted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam. He was convicted of draft evasion, banned from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight title.
When asked about his stance on the North Vietnamese, Ali famously said: “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.”
He was eventually cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court and won back his boxing title. With that, Ali had defeated what many blacks saw as a racist system — regardless of whether Ali was right or wrong in his particular stance.
It would have been easier and more lucrative for Ali to keep quiet and go along with what many in white society wanted from him, said his longtime friend and sports commentator Howard Cosell. They wanted “a white man’s black man,” Cosell once said.
The United States has a long history of expecting deference from black athletes, said Clarence Lang, chairman of the African and African-American studies department at the University of Kansas.
“The expectation is that you will keep your head down, that you don’t make white people uncomfortable by being excellent and being mindful and outspoken about the fact that you are excellent,” Lang said.
Ali didn’t do deference.
“I am America,” he boasted. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me — black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own.”
The boxer “made people accept him as a man, as an equal, and he was not afraid to represent himself in that way,” NFL great Jim Brown said.
President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, keeps a set of Ali’s gloves on display in the White House.
“He stood with King and Mandela, stood up when it was hard, spoke out when others wouldn’t,” Obama said. “His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”
Lang said it would be wrong to assume that Ali was beloved during his time as a boxing champ. He stepped outside of the mainstream of the civil rights movement with some of his rhetoric, outside of the religious community with his conversion to the Nation of Islam and outside of the black military community with his refusal to go to Vietnam.
“In some ways, Ali became a loveable figure after his heyday, after his career,” Lang said. “I think people love to love him now.”
But even back then, people who might not necessarily agree with the rhetoric of militant black activists such as H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X “could nevertheless respect Ali’s talent,” Lang said.
Ali, Sharpton said, “went from one of the most despised figures in the world to one of the most popular men in the world because people respected that he really authentically believed and sacrificed for what he believed in.”
“If there was a Mount Rushmore erected for influential black figures in America,” Sharpton added, “he would not be on the mountain. He would be the mountain.”
Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jessejholland.