U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Brief Note on Honoring Ali

The following guest post is by Robert Fitzgerald, faculty associate at University High School in Normal, Illinois, where he has taught History and Philosophy for the past fourteen years. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Administration and Foundations from Illinois State University. His critical analysis of inequitable school funding in Illinois received the 2013 Education Law Association’s Joseph C. Beckham Dissertation of the Year Award. Fitzgerald is currently in London as part of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program, where he is studying inclusive strategies concerning diversity, multiculturalism, race, and immigration in secondary level British history classrooms. Check out his blog here.

June 3 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Muhammad Ali, affectionally referred to as the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) by many. Although a well-deserved title, particularly in reference to his pugilistic prowess in the ring, it is what he did outside of it that makes this designation a most fitting way to describe the man honored with it. As we celebrate him, it is important to remember all that he did beyond boxing and how his greatness is attached to this as much as to his grace, power, and performance inside the ropes.

Unfortunately, few people focus on the fights Ali fought that weren’t against other men with names such as Liston, Foreman, Patterson, and Frazier. It is these, I have learned in studying and teaching about him this Spring on my U.K. Fulbright journey, that make Ali the person of great distinction who was celebrated worldwide in the plethora of television reports, newspaper articles, magazine stories, and entries in the blogosphere that appeared immediately and the weeks after his passing. It is these, I now believe, that should be the focus of any assertion concerning Ali’s greatness not only as a fighter, but as an American and most importantly, a human being.

Most know that Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Marcellus Clay, a name and place he boasted of proudly in 1960 when interviewed after winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics. Heralded by the press as the unofficial ambassador of America, he was portrayed as all that was good about our nation, the embodiment of the dream we proudly boast as unique to us. Most also know his name was changed to Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam sometime after defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 and winning the heavyweight championship. What most don’t know and have likely avoided finding out about, is why he decided to drop a name once so proud of to take on a new one that would cause consternation, anger, and alienation among many of his fans.

Ali, like his mentor at that time Malcolm X, came to understand the relationship between agency and one’s name. Stressing the importance of individual identity and how this had been stripped of African Americans during centuries of bondage and oppression, both abandoned what they referred to as their slave names to adopt new ones that were empowering in nature. Heavily criticized for doing so at that time, it is not often realized that underpinning the change from Clay to Ali was an intense desire to disassociate with an identity derived from the disempowerment and continuous diminishing of African American agency.

In joining the Nation and accepting the name given to him by its leader, Elijah Muhammad, Ali took his first steps away from mainstream America that, while elevating him as a pugilist, was oppressive towards those he increasingly came to feel he represented and had to fight for. This feeling underpinned his decision to refuse induction into the United States Army in 1967 to fight in Vietnam, a decision that cost him dearly as he was stripped of his title, fined, and prohibited from fighting for three years. Although vilified by many for his perceived lack of patriotism toward the country which afforded him the opportunity to become a successful prize fighter, Ali remained strong and committed during this time, refusing to change his position on the war no matter the cost to his personal and professional wellbeing.

These three actions – joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name, and refusing induction, all in the face of intense public scrutiny – are evidence of a sincere commitment to principles that must be at the forefront of any tribute to the man. To put one’s wellbeing and livelihood in jeopardy, particularly a sports figure of international prominence and wealth, is something we don’t see much of today although the times appear to be begging for someone to step up and act in the spirit of Ali. More so than Frazier, Foreman, Liston, and Patterson, it is these fights we should be remembering today. It was in these moments that I believe Ali was living out the ideal of what it means to be an American. His name, his identity. His faith, his right. His conscientious objection, his duty. Concerning the last of these, it was Senator Fulbright who said in a speech at this time that,

TO CRITICIZE one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing…Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.

Let’s remember Ali for who he really was. A true patriot who stuck to his principles and stood firm in doing so, even at great personal cost. A compassionate human being who believed in the value and dignity of all human life which he was willing to sacrifice his fame and fortune for. A model for others to emulate in terms of advancing social justice, especially those who are able to do so at the level he did. A poet. A pugilist. A marvelous human being. A man of the World. Not a hero, but truly heroic.