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Black History Month - Great Figures of American History: Muhammed Ali

Black History Month - Great Figures of American History: Muhammed Ali

Black History Month Celebration

Each day this week we will be highlighting the life and work of a great Black American who has had a major influence on our nation's history. For each person we highlight, we will be providing a brief biography, a few quotes, and suggestions for further learning. (See all great figures.) 

Yesterday, we highlighted the life of the Fannie Lou Hamer.  Today, we would like to highlight the life of a person who was the greatest sports figure of his era – Muhammed Ali.  

Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville Kentucky on January 17, 1942. At an early age, he decided to devote himself to boxing. It was a sport that fascinated him, and a sport that enabled him to make a name for himself.  In 1960, Ali won the Olympic Gold Medal. In 1964, Ali defeated the great Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali was smart, fast, and strategic. In the ring he could, as he said, “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” 

Ali appreciated the fame and glory he gained from his boxing victories, but he knew there were things more important than boxing. At the peak of his career, Ali was willing to give up everything in service to a higher cause – in service to doing what he believed was right. In 1967, Ali resisted the draft for the Vietnam War. As a result, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title. “My conscience,” Ali said, “won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.”  

Ali’s principled stance was not popular. He faced a storm of criticism. Some writers said he was “the most disgusting character in memory to appear on the sports scene” and a “bum of all time.” Despite the criticism, Ali never backed down. 

Throughout his life, Ali was boastful, proud, and uncompromising in his views.  “I am the greatest” he often said.  More than any figure of his generation, Ali represented the newfound pride of Black Americans and their refusal to accept the racism that so often surrounded them. 

After he retired from boxing, Ali continued to fight for what he believed was right. He broke from his formerly strict interpretation of Islam to a view of Islam that accepted all people and was fundamentally focused on peace. He raised money for the study of Parkinson’s disease (which he suffered from). He also raised money and supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In 1996, Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. 

The quotes below epitomize Ali’s confidence and pride as well as his commitment to helping others. 

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me—black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”

"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."

To learn more about Ali you might enjoy reading Jonathan Eig’s Ali, A Life. You might also enjoy watching the Ken Burns documentary on Ali, Muhammad Ali.