Over the past few days, we've seen image after image of Muhammad Ali: triumphant in the ring, joking on talk shows and shakily lifting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta games. He's remembered these days as an athlete and a humanitarian, and that was, definitely, Ali. But so was the defiant, incisive Ali.
"I'm sayin' you talking about me about some draft, and all of you white boys are breaking your necks to get to Switzerland and Canada and London!" Ali once said. "I'm not going to help nobody get something my Negroes don't have. If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die right here, fightin' you."
He was arguing with white college students in 1967 — a time when black Americans were still being denied the vote in some places and where, in many places, perceived disrespect to whites — even students — could still get a black man killed.
Ali's unshakable self-confidence was a revelation to many black men, given those circumstances. "We had not seen an athlete be so brash and bold and swaggering in defining identity in its own terms. That was important then, and it's still important," says Kevin Merida, the editor-in-chief of the sports and culture website The Undefeated.
Sunni Khalid, a journalist, agrees. He remembers seeing and hearing Ali when he was young and the boxer was in his prime. "That affirmation, 'I'm black and I'm proud, I'm not going to take a slave name, I'm going to embrace a new religion, I'm going to do things on my terms and my terms alone,' that resonated very, very powerfully — especially among African-American men," Khalid says.
"Muhammad Ali is certainly a cultural and political icon," says Peniel Joseph, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin who is director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. "For black people, especially, he becomes the biggest symbol of black power and activism in the late '60s in a kind of defiant black masculinity."
Joseph says Ali never apologized for his beliefs, even when he was penalized for them, as he was when he opted to become an official conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Nor did he soft-pedal his conversion to Islam. "So Muhammad Ali becomes this person who is unapologetically, you know, at times unforgivably black," Joseph says. "But in a way that young people, especially African-Americans and the culture really, really embraced."
Back then, for a public figure at the height of his power to buck the establishment as Ali did was unthinkable, especially when the consequences were so severe. Ali was barred from boxing for 3 1/2 years, when he was in his prime. His income evaporated. Still, he remained unrepentant about his political stance, and his Muslim religion. Sunni Khalid says that was noticed beyond the U.S. borders, as people in several parts of the world embraced Ali as a fellow Muslim.
"Ali could really walk into any African country, many Asian countries, countries in the Middle East, and he would be mobbed, immediately. He was like a member of the family," Khalid says.
Crowds loved Ali and he loved them back. Kevin Merida believes that accessibility is part of why Ali is being so deeply mourned now. Today's star black athletes, like all star athletes, have a retinue of handlers and a roster of jealously guarded endorsements. They have managers and publicists who carefully curate their appearances. They have little spontaneous contact with normal people. They are as inaccessible as movie stars.
Ali, Merida says, stood in sharp contrast to all that. People — especially black people — got used to seeing him out and about. They looked forward to it. "Ali was somebody who would have no problem being in a rec center or playground, a corner in a difficult neighborhood, a barbershop," Merida says.
Ali's openness as a person was irresistible. His visibility as a Muslim also had an effect on his admirers in this country. When Ali joined the Nation of Islam, it was considered more of a black nationalist cult than a branch of orthodox Islam. But when Ali's patron, Elijah Muhammad, died in 1975, his son Warith quickly converted the organization to an orthodox Sunni sect. Ali exposed many black Americans to the religion — and Sunni Khalid is one of those.
"I became a Muslim in 1978," Khalid says. "And I question whether I would have become a Muslim today were it not for Muhammad Ali, and if not for Malcolm X and you could almost say, almost, Elijah Muhammad."
For many people, including African-Americans, this was a first glimpse of a non-Christian religion that is practiced in much of the world. And that religion's ambassador just happened to have been one of the world's best-known black men: Muhammad Ali.