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What's in a Name? The Passing of Muhammad Ali

It's an amazing and tragic coincidence that just as millions of Americans concluded watching a remake of Roots, the story of Kunta Kinte, a man who refused to deny his African heritage and his rightful name, a modern African American hero, Muhammad Ali passed away. Ali wasn’t a slave; he wasn’t separated from his family or whipped. He didn’t have half of his foot sliced off to prevent him from running away, but he was heroic, nevertheless. What he had in common with the fictionalized (although based upon a real person) Kunta Kinte that Americans watched and applauded was an indomitable spirit, an insistence on being the man he knew himself to be, and a courageous voice against the White dominated society in which he lived. And of course he had remarkable physical courage...and talent.

Ali and I are nearly the same age. I grew up a boxing fan—it was one of the few activities my father and I shared—watching the “Friday Night Fights,”— and arriving late for my dates in high school whenever there was a 15 round title fight. Ali won his Olympic title when I was going into my senior year in high school. He was Cassius Clay at that time. I’d never seen as dominant a fighter as he was. Still haven’t. I went off to college, full of myself, confident of my abilities, naïve about the world. I think the young Cassius Clay started the same way, but of course he had more gifts in his chosen field than I would ever have in mine. I changed in the next few and Cassius did too. He became Muhammad Ali.

Converts to Islam, particularly those who changed their names in the process, were viewed with skepticism, suspicion and often hatred in the 1960s. Elijah Muhammad and his Nation of Islam were feared by most of White America. Malcolm X a leader in the Nation of Islam was branded a thug and a criminal, Louis Farrakhan, a vocal troublemaker. In the midst of this, Cassius Clay, only 22 and heavily influenced by Malcolm X, converted to the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. To those who only know Ali as a historical sports figure, it is almost impossible to know the hatred that Ali received when he announced his name change. The public reviled him. He received death threats. Most sports writers, and even most of his black opponents refused to acknowledge the change. Ali himself famously referred to Cassius Clay as his “slave name.” When he was asked if he had “officially” registered his name change with the court, he replied. “What color is the judge? He’s White. So I’d have to ask a White man, may I call myself Muhammad Ali, boss?” When he fought the African-American title contender Ernie Terrell, who had continued to call him Clay, Ali continually taunted Terrell, whom he was brutally beating, by finishing each round yelling, “What’s my name?”

Probably Ali’s most courageous moment came when he refused to be drafted into the armed services to fight in Vietnam. “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?” he asked. He claimed to be a minister of the Nation of Islam and explained that it was against his religion to engage in a war declared by White Christians. He was sentenced to five years in prison and stripped of his title. Although he remained out of prison on bail, Ali was not allowed to fight again until three years later the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and his loss of his title was ruled by the boxing commission as illegal. Meanwhile, he had become a popular anti-war speaker on college campuses, where he continued to preach for dignity for Black people, freedom from segregation and discrimination and the evil of going to war against poor “brown people” from other nations, whom he considered were fighting for their own freedom.

Young Americans are familiar with the aging Muhammad Ali who was afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease, yet still spoke out, as long as he remained able, against discrimination and war. He converted from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam in 1975 and then Sufism in his later years. He became a revered figure in world sports, named the greatest sports figure of the 20th century by both Sports Illustrated and the BBC. The young Muhammad Ali was brash, aggressive, and unafraid to challenge both Black and White America on its hypocrisy. He was willing to endure punishment for his beliefs, but never stopped fighting for them. He was vocal about both his African and his slave heritages. He was the first fighter to bring a world championship fight to Africa. His passing represents the loss of one of the most iconic figures in modern American history, and one who was a hero to many of those my age, who were able to proudly look up to such a prominent example of heroism in our own effort to stand up those who wanted to pursue what we considered an unjust war and to those who wanted to perpetuate racial injustice here at home. And, like Kunta Kinte, Muhammad Ali insisted that everyone call him by his real name.

Reader Comments (1)

I call him Hero.

June 4, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Mark

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