“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… How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Boxing great Muhammad Ali, known around the world as a humanitarian who spoke out forcefully against racial inequality, social injustice, and the Vietnam War during the 1960’s, has died at the age of 74.
The news of the athlete’s passing was confirmed by several news outlets late Friday night as well as a brief statement released on behalf of the family.
“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening,” said family spokesperson Bob Gunnell in the statement.
According to reports, Ali had been receiving treatment related to respiratory problems at a hospital in Arizona.
Though regarded as one of the great boxers and individual athletes of all time and widely cherished for his tenacious wit and swagger, Ali—who was born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 before converting to Islam and changing his name later in life—was equally heralded for his humanitarian work and taking bold political stances, even when they put his career in jeopardy.
Drafted for by the U.S. government into the Vietnam War in 1967, Ali refused to go.
“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 famously said. “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.”
And separately, he is quoted as saying:
Though his refusal was celebrated by many, Sports Illustrates explains how it did not come without consequences:
Ali would not box for almost four years, as he appealed his arrest all the way to the Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction. Ali would go on to win the heavyweight title two more times, in 1974 and 1978. Along the way, Ali fought in some of the most iconic bouts in boxing history, including a trilogy of fights with rival Joe Frazier and “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he maintained a public presence for many years following. In recent years, Ali largely remained out of the spotlight, as his health declined in light of his disease.
Ali’s legacy in and out of the ring made him one of the most well-known Americans ever. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Century in 1999, while the BBC named him Sports Personality of the Century. Last year, SI renamed its Legacy Award in Ali’s honor.
In 2002, journalist Gary Younge, in a piece titled simply ‘The Fighter,’ attempted to describe how a “fresh-faced amateur boxer from Kentucky”—who went on to become known by the unsubtle nickname “The Greatest”—came to symbolize the struggle of black and other oppressed people, not only in the United States, but around the world. Ali, Younge wrote, was a
part of the social history of his time; he just refused to let mainstream society set the pace. Asked by one commentator what kind of champion he intended to be after he beat Liston in 1964, Ali replied: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I can be what I want to be and I’m free to think what I want to think.” It was a powerful statement for a young black man to make, not only in the US but just about anywhere at the time.
It was a statement that could find meaning in Mississippi, where civil rights workers would risk and sometimes lose their lives fighting segregation; but equally in the newly independent and soon-to-be independent states in Africa and the Caribbean. It was the year Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for opposing apartheid and Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel peace prize for doing the same thing. This was one of the few times last century when the interests of African-Americans and the interests of the broader diaspora converged. With different means and different results in vastly different circumstances, they were all fighting for the vote and civil rights.
“Sure, we identified with the blacks in Africa,” said John Lewis, then a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now a congressman in Atlanta. “And we were thrilled by what was going on. They were getting their freedom and we still didn’t have ours in what we believed was a free country. We couldn’t even get a hamburger and a Coke at the soda fountain. What was happening in Africa, finally, had tremendous influence on us.” With his visits to Ghana and tours of other African states, Ali encapsulated that mood long before he met George Foreman in Kinshasa for the Rumble in the Jungle.
After retiring from boxing in 1981, ABC News reports how the celebrated fighter “entrenched himself in charitable work and humanitarian causes — from serving as a United Nations “Messenger of Peace” to supporting hunger and poverty relief. He appeared on the lecture circuit, although the frequency of his appearances lessened when his speech began to slur from his advancing disease.”
Dipping his toes into the political ring during this year’s presidential race in the U.S., Ali made a point to release a statement following declarations by Donald Trump that he would, if elected, institute a total ban on Muslims entering the country.
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” Ali said in a statement. “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.” He also called on Muslims to “stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Quoted in this Sports Magazine article in 2014, Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali’s official biographer, said that his big concern in terms of Ali’s legacy was that he had become “famous simply for being famous.”
Most people, continued Hauser, “know that he stood up for his principles, but they really don’t know what his principles were. Really, to fully appreciate what he meant, you almost had to live through his times – and every day pick up the newspaper to find something about this man.” Though famous throughout the world during the peaks of his career, explained Hauser, fewer and fewer people possess an independent recollection of the man as “a fighter” or as the powerful “social force” he was during those early years.
“You have to remember that when Ali beat Sonny Liston [in 1964], it was a crime in many states for black people and white people to marry,” Hauser explained. “Segregation was the law of the land, and when he burst upon the scene, an awful lot of black people thought it was better to be white. Reggie Jackson – a very famous baseball player – said that to me. That before Muhammad Ali, there were times when he was ashamed of being black, but that obviously he is proud of being black now. Muhammad Ali was part of that growth process for him. Every time Ali said ‘I’m so pretty’, what he was really saying – before it became fashionable – was ‘black is beautiful’. And he became a beacon of hope not just for black people, but for oppressed people all over the world.”
In fact, as Younge acknowledges in his own personal reflection of Ali: “I was one of those children. At home we had a rabbit – a black rabbit with a white patch around its eye – that we called Muhammad,” remembers Younge. “And I had a T-shirt, with wording stretching over my toddler’s pot belly reading: ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I never thought I was nothing. But when I wore that T-shirt, I felt like a million dollars.”