RIP Muhammad Ali: What is a legacy of The Greatest?

Muhammad Ali, ( January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016). If you would assess his impact on American society and politics what was his role? And what is his legacy, and why? Read few comments.

Michael Ezra, Professor of American Multicultural Studies, Sonoma State Universtity, Author of Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon

Muhammad Ali was a hugely important to the African American freedom struggle. He symbolically bridged the positions of a wide range of leaders and ideologies, from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X, in ways that nobody else could. Muhammad Ali will go down in American history as the rare public figure who risked everything to defend his political and religious beliefs. His recapturing the heavyweight title, after he was left for dead by the sport, is rightfully celebrated as a triumph for justice. Ali’s ability to reinvent himself in the face of difficult circumstances, time and again, provides the basis for his status as an American and worldwide hero.

Malachi Crawford, Assistant Director, African American Studies, University of Houston

Muhammad Ali’s legacy and impact on American society and politics was tremendous and simply cannot be overstated, especially in light of the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Arguably at no other time in world history (or at least the history of the 20th Century) have American athletes been as outspoken on international affairs than they were during the 1960s.  Muhammad Ali’s struggle for social justice, human rights and religious freedom was the central and driving force behind the political and social agency of American athletes of the period.  Consider the fact that the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) established by Harry Edwards at San Jose State University in 1968, which sought to have American athletes boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, had as one of its primary objectives the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title.  Other objectives included getting the IOC to disinvite South African and Rhodesia for their apartheid or apartheid-like policies and terminating Avery Brundage’s presidency of the IOC given his views on race.  The boycott was never realized, but it remains one of the few times in the 20th Century where American athletes came together and agreed in principle to take a stand against some of the major human rights violations of the day.

At the same time, the administration of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson believed that Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War could dramatically hinder the U.S. Military’s ability to draft African American youth into the war given his national popularity and international standing.  For this reason, the military officers present at Ali’s induction ceremony in Houston, Texas, had direct lines to both the White House and the U.S. Department of Defense (the Pentagon).  His well-received speech at Howard University, perhaps the most well-known Historically Black College and University of the time, in 1967, gave credence to his impact.  More significantly, Ali’s struggle became a symbol and provided moral legitimacy to the various groups around the country that were protesting America’s entrance into Vietnam as an unjust war.  There simply were no major figures of Ali’s stature (or of national importance) coming out against the war.  This had everything to do with the fact that supporting American war efforts had traditionally been seen as the patriotic thing to do.  Conversely, not supporting American war efforts could result in someone being labeled “Un-American”.  Unsurprisingly, the Reverend Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., an internationally renowned humanitarian and advocate of peace and non-violence, came out publicly against the Vietnam War only three weeks before Muhammad Ali formally refused to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces.  In short, Ali’s stance on the war pushed Dr. King to make a decision on where he stood on the war before it became too late.

Ali was willing to sacrifice his freedom for his personal and religious beliefs on the issue of war.  Although it is little discussed in the context of his bout with Parkinson’s disease, one of the very tragic consequences that resulted from various state boxing commissions stripping Ali of his title as heavyweight champion and refusing to license a fight for him was his decision to prolong his boxing career.  Simply put, the three to four years that these commissions denied him the right to earn a living from professional fighting were his prime years as a boxer.  The fact that Muhammad Ali nevertheless stood by his beliefs demonstrates his commitment to placing ethics and moral courage above personal profit.  In so doing, Ali transcended the very function and purpose of professional sports (in a capitalist society) in modern times.

For Ali, his career as a boxer was not unimportant, but less important than what he stood for.  I see this not only in his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces and drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, but also in his continuous and persistent refusal to be called by any other name than that which he called himself—Muhammad Ali.  Let me be clear:  Muhammad Ali’s struggle for human dignity and social justice started from the moment major American media outlets (i.e., newspapers and television stations) refused to call him by his name.  This struggle, in fact, preceded his objection to serving in Vietnam by at least two years.

There is so much more to discuss in terms of Muhammad Ali’s legacy and significance to both American and African American politics, society and history.  I will simply say that Muhammad Ali stands as one of the greatest examples of social ethics and moral integrity in American history.

Andra Gillespie, Associate Professor of Political Science, Emory University

While Muhammad Ali was a sports figure, he was also a key player in many of the social and political battles of the 1960’s. His association with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X was both religious and political. The theology of the Nation of Islam emerges as a response to American racism. His refusal to fight in Vietnam was a stand for religious freedom, but when he spoke about it publicly, he framed it in terms of civil right, saying that the Viet Cong had never harmed him. In saying that, he indicted the white power structure in the states that prosecuted this war and promoted, in ways overt and subtle, white supremacy.

Ali’s personal style was also significant. As the tributes and reflections have poured in, many have talked about his brashness and how remarkable it was for a black man to be that bold in the early 1960’s (because being that bold could get you killed). In his own way, Ali was asserting his right to full manhood.

Robert Smith, Professor of Political Science, San Francisco State University

Ali is important in  American culture because he used his celebrity status to effect social and political change, and become an important leader and iconic symbol of the black power movement of the 1960s. An early opponent of the war on Vietnam, his celebrity status conferred legitimacy on the anti-war movement. His embrace of the Nation of Islam and later more orthodox Islam gave the religion respectability to many Americans, but especially his fellow blacks. Ali’s unapologetic , forcefully and witty embrace of “Blackness” undermined white supremacy and symbolized the iconic idea of “ Black is Beautiful”. In  later years, his courageous opposition to the War on Vietnam  was vindicated and he became a national hero feted by American presidents and sent on diplomatic missions. A great athlete, and a great American in the historic African American freedom struggle.


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