Muhammad Ali is often called, “The Greatest.” Many people believe that his nickname refers to his performance as a boxer, and in part it does, but I think it is more representative of Ali outside of the ring. Lots of historians and avid boxing fans realize Ali’s significance beyond the sport of boxing, but many people don’t. Donald Trump is one of those individuals, and it’s time he received a brief history lesson on what makes Muhammad Ali such a beloved figure around the world.
On Sunday, December 6 during his address to the nation, President Obama said, “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes.” He was attempting to battle the rise of anti-Islamic rhetoric and sentiment in the United States.
Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, tweeted the following statement during President Obama’s address:
Many media outlets were quick to criticize Trump’s comments for being ridiculous, which they are, but also for being so clueless about Muhammad Ali’s background as a Muslim. This doesn’t just imply that Trump lacks knowledge about Muhammad Ali, but that he is completely removed from, or does not value the history of the civil rights movement.
Before Muhammad Ali was Muhammad Ali, he was Cassius Marcellus Clay. He won Olympic gold in 1960, and was the youngest person, at the time, to become the heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 22 in 1964. He accomplished a lot at a young age, but was disillusioned with the U.S. government due to their failures with race relations and inability to provide equality for all of its citizens.
In 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. One of the reasons that he did this was to establish an identity that rejected the prejudice of his society. He viewed his given name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, as a name that embodied the mistreatment his ancestors faced during times of slavery. In 1964, despite being the heavyweight champion of the world, he felt like the establishment still regarded him and black Americans as second class citizens. He wanted to outwardly criticize and reject policies that perpetuated racism and prejudice. His identity as Muhammad Ali empowered him to do just that.
Muhammad Ali’s voice became one of the strongest and most identifiable in opposition to the racist practices of the U.S. government. He was outspoken and received death threats for broadcasting his views, but he was an even better fighter outside of the ring than inside the ring.
His toughest and most publicized battle external to boxing came when he refused induction into the U.S. Army in 1966. He did so based on his religious and political beliefs. He famously stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”
He stood up for his religious beliefs and outwardly voiced his objections to the Vietnam War and the political system that supported it. Millions agreed with Ali’s perspective and rallied around him. He was charged with a felony for refusal to be inducted and was found guilty. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
Today, Ali is revered for his political and social activism. He is a pioneer that taught people that they should have the courage to follow their convictions. He has spearheaded numerous charities, community outreach programs and philanthropic efforts. He is a great American hero.
Yesterday, Muhammad Ali replied to Donald Trump’s anti-Islamic statements. As reported by The Huffington Post, Ali stated, “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
Muhammad Ali is 73 years old and is severely debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, but he is still strong enough to stand up to prejudice and bigotry. I think that Donald Trump could learn a lot from Muhammad Ali if he is willing to look past his own prejudice.