Photo by John Peodincuk/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images By Rayna Reid Rayford·
In 1942, a legend was born: Muhammad Ali, the literal GOAT. [Fun fact: Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to license her husband’s intellectual properties].
But not only did Ali break records in the boxing ring—being the first boxer to win three world heavyweight title championship bouts— he also was an advocate for his people, standing up for social justice and espousing powerful messages of Black pride throughout his lifetime.
To commemorate what would have been Ali’s eighty-first birthday on Jan. 17, ESSENCE is highlighting 17 moments he fought the great fight for social justice outside of the ring.
01Ali didn’t just fight to win medals or glory“When you saw me in the boxing ring fighting, it wasn’t just so I could beat my opponent,” he said. “My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful in order to get people to listen to the things I had to say…I wanted to be a champion who was accessible to everyone. I hoped to inspire others to take control of their lives and to live with pride and self-determination.” Getty Images 02Demonstrating his conviction to racial justice and Black pride, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali“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.” Getty Images 03The legendary boxer took an early stance against the Vietnam War after he was drafted in 1967“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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… But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. 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.” 04A trailblazer ahead of his time, Ali incorporated racial economic mobility into his platform when he formed Main Bout IncMain Bout would “allow African Americans to enjoy the lion’s share of profits from the world’s heavyweight championship, then the most lucrative prize in sports.” 05A powerful orator, Ali was outspoken about how Black is beautiful“The white tries to show the white as all-good. All the good cowboys ride wide horses. Angel food cake is white and devil’s food cake is chocolate… Black dirt is the best dirt. Brown sugar causes fewer cavities, and the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” 06Ali’s refusal to be drafted prompted the Cleveland Summit meeting of prominent Black athletesThe summit included “Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Bill Russell and a young Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and politicians [who] publicly expressed their support for Muhammad Ali after meeting with him about his conscientious objection to military service, [which] has been described as ‘a watershed moment…in the annals of both the civil rights movement and the protest against the Vietnam War.’” 07Ali spoke with Black youth about their frustrations about the lack of progress during the Civil Rights eraDuring the summer of 1967, many anticipated a riot sweeping the streets of Chicago after the West Side uprising the year before; but this crisis was averted after “Ali appeared at a secret meeting in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood…urg[ing] reconciliation among Black youths in the neighborhood, an end to violence, and restraint in the upcoming summer.” Ali with James Brown in 1966, one year before the 1967 urban uprisings | Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Image 08He spoke at the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington after Dr. King’s assassinationDuring the campaign’s stopover in Louisville, KY, Ali engaged the audience around the topic of economic justice. Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank 09Ali constantly challenged the status quoHe’d ask many probing rhetorical questions during interviews and speeches alike, “about why Jesus is pictured as white, why Tarzan, King of the Jungle in Africa, is white, and Miss America was always white.” Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images 10He touted the glory of Africa at a time when many were hesitant to do soAli challenged George Foreman for title of World Heavyweight Championship in the “Rumble in the Jungle” placing “a spotlight on a post-colonial African nation led by an African leader; as a demonstration of Black pride, Black pilots flew Ali there and the trip amounted to a kind of homecoming for a most famous African American; and a major concert accompanied the fight featuring some of U.S.’s and Africa’s top Black musical talent.” 11Made uplifting Blackness synonymous with his trailblazing pathAli helped the world “become accustomed to (if not always comfortable with) African-Americans as the face of a sport and a product pitchman. His commercials for d-CON roach traps in the late 1970s were among the first national ads to feature an African-American athlete promoting non-sports products.”
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