The big story in the news today has been the death of Muhammad Ali at the age of 74. Ali was the consummate athlete, a man whose speed, strength, and stamina made him a legend in the boxing ring, a heavyweight who moved more like a smaller fighter. As much as he was known for his pugilistic skills, he was also well known for his wit and his charisma, having a tongue that was as sharp and as punishing as his jab.
I'd venture to say that Ali's greatest attribute was his anti-authoritarianism, an independent streak that led him to refuse military service during the Vietnam conflict. He defied the United States government and challenged the morality of the war itself:
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. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is 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…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. 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.
A courageous statement from an intelligent, thoughtful man who knew that his stance, though moral and just, would land him in serious trouble with the corrupt government. It's no wonder that Ali became a symbol for revolutionaries and reformers the world over. While the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila were towering epics in the annals of international sport, the real legacy of Ali lies in the rumble of protest at injustice and the thrilla kindled in the activist's heart. In one of his last public statements, Ali spoke out against both Islamic fundamentalist radicalism and Islamophobia:
I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.
We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.
Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.
For a man who was known for his fists and his mouth, Muhammad Ali's heart was his greatest defining characteristic. He spoke truth to power, and white power, and the inevitable torrent of trollery will be keeping me away from most mainstream website accounts of his death. The real danger, though, is that Muhammad Ali, a man who burned with revolutionary fervor, will be sanitized and trivialized for public consumption... he was a lion, not a Care Bear, and it's up to us to remember him as such.