These words not only belong to a legendary and iconic trailblazer in the world of sports and society, they are also fitting to describe the life, legacy and impact of an individual who is larger than life and has left an indelible mark on this entire world.
That individual is none other than lifelong humanitarian, civil rights activist, lecturer, author and boxing icon Muhammad Ali, who passed away this past Friday, June 3rd at the age of 74.
According to family members, Ali had been at a Phoenix-area hospital being treated for respiratory complications prior to his death. Ali had been battling Parkinson’s disease for over 32 years, after being diagnosed with it three years after retiring from the sport of boxing in 1984.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system, for which there is no cure. It primarily affects a person’s movement, whereby they often have trouble talking and walking. Approximately 1 million people in the United States have Parkinson’s disease, and men are more likely to get Parkinson’s disease than women, especially people over the age of 50. In spite of his health challenges, Ali fought Parkinson’s disease every day like the champion he was and never allowed that to deter him from staying engaged in politics, social issues, current events and keeping up with the sport he loved – boxing.
Before there was Black Lives Matter, there was Muhammad Ali.
Ali was more than just a legendary boxer; he was also a legendary civil rights activist.
A lot of individuals may only be familiar with the Muhammad Ali who struggled to lift the torch and light the Olympic flame at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, in July 1996; but to truly appreciate the legendary life of Ali, one must go back to his earlier years prior to Parkinson’s disease; a legendary status worthy of being remembered beyond the boxing ring.
After experiencing tremendous boxing success at an early age, including turning professional and “shocking the world” by defeating Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world, Ali once again “shocked the world” by publicly announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam and was denouncing his birth name of Cassius Marcellus Clay and changing it to Muhammad Ali.
As Ali continued to dominate his opponents in the boxing ring, he became an even more dominant activist outside of the ring as he tackled social issues like racism and war. His outspoken views against the United States government and the Vietnam War became one of the most classic examples of how Ali became a legendary civil rights activist.
When Ali appeared at that Army recruiting station in Houston, Texas, in April 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, he refused to step forward when his name was called and refused to serve in the U.S. Army. What many people do not know is that Ali had already been told that he would be arrested for draft evasion if he refused, but he had already indicated that his religious faith would not allow him to go and fight against the Vietnamese, saying:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, 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.”
Many people considered him unpatriotic because of his stance, but he stood firm and refused to compromise on his convictions. Those who opposed his stance, in turn, began the process of publicly ridiculing him and seeking to destroy his character and impact his livelihood by seeking to strip him of his world title, which was eventually done.
Ali was arrested and charged with committing a felony. Ali was immediately stripped of his world title and boxing license. Ali was found guilty of draft evasion. Ali was sentenced to five years in prison in June 1967. Ali was unable to continue boxing and compete professionally in the sport he loved and was dominant in because of the arrest and conviction. Ali missed more than three prime years of his athletic career. Ali never stopped fighting.
In spite of all these things, Ali continued to hold fast to his convictions and became an even more vocal critic of the United States government and the Vietnam War. He made the most of his time away from fighting in the ring, while he was out on appeal. Ali began speaking nationally on the lecture circuit, primarily on college campuses, where he would get involved in some fiery discussions and heated debates about the issues that were affecting the country from his perspective. He would often emphasize the consistent hypocrisy of America denying Black people rights, yet ordering Blacks to fight in wars on behalf of the U.S. against countries abroad.
In one exchange at a college campus, Ali completely destroyed this unidentified White student, who tried his best to challenge his decision to avoid the draft. In classic Ali fashion, he said:
“I’m not gonna help nobody get something the Negros don’t have, because if I’m gonna die, I’ll die right here fighting you…You my enemy. My enemy is the White people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.”
Ali continued to speak truth to power until his appeal, which took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, was heard and conviction reversed in a unanimous decision in June 1971. In their ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the U.S. Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali’s stance was motivated by something other than his religious beliefs.
Ali was reinstated and went on to continue his stellar boxing career, in spite of the layoff from the ring. He was a part of some of the most epic bouts in the history of boxing and considered by many to be the greatest boxer to ever step in the ring, becoming the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times, after defeating Leon Spinks in February 1978.
Ali often found himself in Houston, whether it was to speak or to visit his friends at the Houston Forward Times. Even Texas Southern University (TSU) benefited from the presence and wisdom of Muhammad Ali.
Ali was awarded a doctor of humane letters and received his doctoral hood from then-TSU President Dr. Granville Sawyer and then-Provost Dr. Robert Terry at the TSU Commencement exercises in May, 1978, where he gave a lively and personable commencement speech. He told the TSU graduates with a wink and a nod to “be just like him,” then turned serious, urging them “stand for something” in life.
Georgia Provost, a local entrepreneur, received her diploma that day and remembers the ceremony on the lawn of TSU’s Hannah Hall.
“I hadn’t planned to march that day, but I’m glad that I changed my mind,” Provost said. “It was a beautiful day and I remember it vividly. Getting my degree and being in the presence of Mr. Ali, Mickey Leland and the wonderful (Dr.) Thomas Freeman will be one of my most cherished memories.”
Dr. Freeman is the internationally recognized Debate coach and Forensic Arts professor emeritus at Texas Southern. Freeman, who has been a part of TSU for over 60 years, reflected on Ali.
“This is a validation of Texas Southern’s motto ‘Excellence in Achievement,’ as we recognized Muhammad Ali’s distinction in his chosen profession,” said Dr. Freeman. “Mr. Ali lived and breathed excellence, touching everyone he met.”
Student Minister Dr. Robert S. Muhammad serves as the Southwest Regional Representative of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. He reflected on the legacy of Ali and the impact he had on Houston and the world.
“Houston, Texas and Muhammad Ali are forever linked in history because of the bold, principled stance he took concerning the Vietnam War. He was convicted in Federal District Court right here in Houston in 1967,” said Dr. Muhammad. “I met him as a little boy in front of Teresa Hotel on 125th Street & 7th Ave. in Harlem. He is one of my greatest heroes and I love this man because he risked everything for his religious beliefs. I pray that Allah bless his family and grant them peace.”
The world should never forget the impact that Ali had on the sport of boxing and on the world in general. Although Parkinson’s disease hampered his ability to speak and move as he once did, it never deterred his passion and bold ability to continue speaking truth to power, especially when it concerned issues he cared about such as African American people and his Muslim faith.
For instance, in December, Ali released a rebuking statement concerning Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., by saying, “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Muhammad Ali was a fighter until the very end and the world should never forget that.
The greatest testament of the fighter that Ali has always been came from his daughter Hana Ali who was with him as he battled to stay alive, writing, “All of his organs failed but his HEART wouldn’t stop beating. For 30 minutes … his heart just kept beating. No one had ever seen anything like it. A true testament to the strength of his Spirit and Will!”
One of the best ways to describe the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali is by using his words:
“Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
Muhammad Ali has truly made his days count on this Earth.
Ali leaves behind his fourth wife, Yolanda, whom he had been married to since 1986. The couple had one son together, Asaad, and Ali had eight children from previous relationships, including his daughter Laila Ali, who followed in his footsteps by becoming a champion boxer.