Not only was Muhammad Ali the greatest of all time in the boxing ring, he was also a champion of peace, justice and equality. He was, without a doubt, my favorite living American.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my favorite American ever, began shifting the focus of his activism from racial equality to opposing economic injustice and American militant imperialism, calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” he alienated many who had supported him until then. But not Ali. He was acutely aware of the hypocrisy of a nation which claimed to stand for freedom around the world while it denied basic rights and dignity to millions of its own citizens, asking, “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 while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
“Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all—black and brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression,” King noted at the time. And like King, Ali devoted much of his life to fighting that oppression. “The Greatest” did so much more than talk the talk. As the Lyndon B. Johnson administration relentlessly escalated its ideological war against Vietnamese peasants fighting for their freedom, slaughtering innocent men, women and children by the thousands, he found himself facing the draft and a decision that would cost him not only his title of World Heavyweight Champion but also some of the prime years of his career. It wasn’t a difficult choice for him to make.
“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. 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 or kill my mother and father,” he famously dissented. “How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail…I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what?”
In one powerful, timeless statement, Ali ensured the wrath of the most powerful enemy on earth—his own government, and secured his place among the greatest voices for peace of his, or any, generation. The fallout was fast and furious. He was denied boxing licenses in every state and stripped of his passport. That meant he couldn’t defend his title or fight anywhere from the spring of 1967 through the fall of 1970, from age 25 until almost 29. “He was robbed of his best years, his prime years,” his trainer Angelo Dundee said. Ali was tried and convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison (although he avoided incarceration as he appealed his case), and banned from the ring for three years. The FBI, through its infamous COINTELPRO program, and the NSA, in Operation Minaret, spied on Ali, just as they did to MLK.
Through it all, Ali seemed undaunted. “I’d rather be punished here in this life than the hereafter,” the devout Muslim declared. Much of his pacifism was rooted in his interpretation of what he considered a religion of peace. “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an,” he said. “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”
Ali’s principled and selfless stance inspired millions. “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness,” wrote New York Times columnist William Rhoden. “Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”
Ali put his Muslim faith to good use trying to bring peace and justice to far-flung corners of the world. In 1991, as the United States waged yet another imperial war of choice, this time against Iraq, he traveled to Baghdad to meet Saddam Hussein, and was instrumental in securing the release of American hostages there. A decade later, as America was once again bombing poor, dark-skinned people—now it was Afghanistan, Ali was there, this time as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.
It wasn’t only war that Ali fought against, he also tenaciously tackled poverty and hunger around the world, as well as racism, intolerance and Islamophobia at home. When Donald Trump announced his plan to ban all Muslim immigration and travel to the United States, Ali quickly and publicly responded, despite his failing health due to advanced Parkinson’s disease.
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” he said. “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”
Looking back on his incomparable life, Ali said that “some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.” Neither the crushing power of a racist, imperialist government, nor the ravages of a degenerative, debilitating disease could deny “The Greatest” his freedom to rebel, resist and above all, inspire.