OpEd: Ali Was The Hero America Needed But Didn't Want

Image: Muhammad Ali
Speaking at a press conference in Chicago on Sept. 25, 1970, deposed world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali "Cassius Clay" said he might fight Jerry Quarry in New York if Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox succeeds in halting the scheduled Atlanta bout.Charles Kolenovsky / AP, file

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By Shane Paul Neil

I am not old enough to have seen Muhammad Ali fight in his prime. I was just three years old when he fought his final fight against Trevor Berbick in 1981. But despite our age gap, I would still grow up to be a huge fan.

He was to me what Michael Jordan was to a generation of children who never saw him win a championship. A mythical figure whose triumphs and feats were the stuff of legend. Unlike Jordan, however, the legend of Ali extended into black pride and the struggle for equality for people of color across the world. And it was this, as much as his athletic resume, that made him my personal hero and idol.

Athleticism, work ethic, pride, and education served as the pillars of my childhood. And if you could plot the intersection between my parent's personality and interests, Muhammad Ali would be standing on the corner.

My father—the consummate athlete—ran track, played football, and was an excellent swimmer. He was likely the only black man in New York who played water polo in his hay day. He was also a workhorse. There wasn't a dollar he ever held that he didn't earn, and for every dollar he probably stashed fifty cents.

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My mother, born in Louisiana at the height of Jim Crow, is loud and proud. She was determined to make sure I knew my history and the plight of blacks in America as well as the contributions we made in making the country what it is today. A high school dropout, she is a voracious reader and made sure that the by time I was in the third grade, I could read a New York Times article.

While my peers made idols of Magic, Jordan, and Tyson, I wore my Muhammad Ali t-shirt with a Malcolm X baseball cap. For all the athleticism of my youth, I most wanted to be a truth teller like Ali.

For all the love and revelry of the life and times of Muhammad Ali, even at the height of his popularity and achievement, he was viewed by most Americans as an anti-hero at best and a villain at worst.

An Olympic hero who represented his country in the most popular sport of its time in its most premier weight class, would go on to change his name from Cassius to Muhammed, forsake Christianity for Islam, and join what was then viewed as a radical black cult.

He was the hero America needed but didn't want.

He would then, on a very regular basis, tell white America about herself. Boldly, and presumably without fear, the Kentucky native would lecture white America on its barbarism, racism, greed and injustices. He answered all questions put forth with an honesty that America found both seething and irresistible.

Ultimately, he put his money and fame where his mouth was by refusing the draft, relinquishing his titles and risking a five-year prison sentence while losing three and a half years of his boxing prime. He was the hero America needed but didn't want. He was an American iconoclast.

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Following my idol got me into plenty of fights. Unlike Ali, I lost more than my fair share. Between being one of about ten black children in my private elementary school and the only light-skinned kid on my block, being outspoken was a tough road. I always took solace in my hero having walked a far tougher one. As Ali famously said, "It isn't the mountains ahead to climb that wear us out, it's the pebble in your shoe."

The life of Muhammad Ali is one that shows the value and reward of speaking truth to power. He is proof that the greatest among us must be prepared to hold a mirror to America and always let her know exactly who she is, warts and all.

While my peers made idols of Magic, Jordan, and Tyson, I wore my Ali t-shirt with my Malcolm X baseball cap.

As America celebrates the life of Muhammad Ali, she will point to iconic moments like his lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 games in Atlanta, which was a beautiful spectacle. What America won't say is that spectacle was, in reality, an apology to a man, who after winning the Olympic gold medal lamented the treatment of himself and other black Americans due to institutionalized racism and segregation. It was atonement for doing something that is perpetually American, killing the messenger. America tried to do symbolically to Ali, what it did to the likes of Martin and Malcolm. In similar fashion, she left it to future generations to make amends.

It's easy to imagine a young Ali fully participating in the Black Lives Matter Movement. I have no question that he would have worn an "I Can't Breathe" t-shirt while walking to the ring and would have lamented the deaths of the likes of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Freddie Gray to anyone who would listen.

It can be argued that the Black Lives Matter movement's unapologetic brashness, voice, and civil disruption is the most fitting testament to the life of Ali. His foundation has, to no one's surprise, shown support for the movement on several occasions presumably for this very reason.

Injustice robbed Ali of his prime athleticism. His body robbed him of his mobility. Nothing could ever rob him of his brilliance.

Rest in peace sir. You helped shape a culture; you helped progress a country, and you forever changed the world.

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