Muhammad Ali’s Black Power activism may not fit neatly into the outpouring of grief, respect and reflection in the coming days and weeks after his death Friday at age 74. But its one of the most crucial and enduring parts of a legacy that shaped the world.
By the late 1960s, Ali’s unforgiveable blackness helped him emerge as a transcendent and global figure of black liberation. He became more “black” than James Brown, the godfather of soul, who shouted to the world that he was “proud” to be black. He possessed more charisma than his friend Stokely Carmichael, who tutored the heavyweight champion on the nuances of his own groundbreaking anti-war activism. He proved more accessible than Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, who gave Ali his name as part of a successful effort to pry the young champion from the grips of his most important mentor, Malcolm X.
Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were, like the title of the recent electrifying history of their friendship, Blood Brothers, whose shared reputations as trouble-makers hid profound intellectual energies and supple understanding of politics.
Malcolm’s own star power helped shape Ali’s introduction to the world following his ascension to heavyweight champion in 1964. The two men conducted a public media tour of sorts, grabbing lunch in Harlem, touring the United Nations and verbally sparring with the large media contingent that trailed their every move.
Privately, Malcolm attempted to school the young Ali on the nuances of the Islamic faith, the contradictions of the Nation of Islam and the burdens of public fame and celebrity. Malcolm taught Ali how to speak truth to power by any means necessary.
This lesson proved fatal in Malcolm’s case, when former colleagues, including Ali himself, shunned him after he left the Nation of Islam. Ali would publicly regret not having stood by his mentor’s side in later years. Tutored by the Black Power Movement’s most revolutionary symbol, however, Ali would find himself unwittingly taking Malcolm’s place as America’s most well-known black Muslim.
Ali’s religious beliefs and Nation of Islam membership sparked a national controversy. White promoters and business interests, who controlled much of the boxing establishment, threatened to cancel future fights. Many journalists defiantly referred to the heavy-weight champ by what he labeled “my slave name” of Cassius Clay. Ali insisted that reporters and boxers “say my name” — including former champ Floyd Patterson, whom he defeated in humiliating fashion for failing to do so.
In the process, Ali paved the way for a generation of black athletes — most notably Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — to unapologetically embrace their political and religious beliefs and adopt a proud new racial identity.
Black Power radicalism framed Ali’s decision to refuse the draft. Carmichael, who was then chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and friend of Ali, popularized chants of “Hell no, we won’t go!” in explosive speeches around the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. soon followed Ali and Carmichael, lending gravitas to the burgeoning anti-war movement through his April 4, 1967 Riverside Church speech in New York City.
Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the military shortly after turned resistance against the Vietnam War into a movement that transcended boundaries between sports and politics.
In the aftermath of defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, when Ali became heavyweight champion of the world, he famously remarked, “I shook up the world!” Ali’s words anticipated the global response to his anti-war stance, actions that were shaped by his growing participation in the Black Power Movement.
Stripped of his livelihood as a boxer and denied legal protection of being a conscientious objector, Ali went on the offensive. He defiantly confronted the U.S. foreign policy establishment. He outraged U.S. public officials by declaring that the Vietnamese people never “called me a nigger.”
Ali echoed Black Power activists’ critique of American hegemony. He challenged the usefulness of the Cold War as an organizing international principle, and stood in solidarity with the “Third World” against foreign intervention.
Ali became the most visible symbol of Black Power’s radical critique of American imperialism, structural racism and white supremacy. Like the early Malcolm X, he used the Nation of Islam’s belief in racial separatism as a shield against the political violence associated with efforts at racial integration. He wielded black history as a sword against white claims of racial inferiority.
Ali embraced the rough edges and the plainer surfaces of black identity in a manner that was unapologetically, at times unforgivably, black. Captivating the student body at Howard University, Ali ridiculed the oppressive breadth of white supremacy in popular culture, noting how “even the King of the Jungle, Tarzan in black Africa is white!” He then quipped that in heaven, black people were in the kitchen fixing the “milk and honey” for their white counterparts to eat.
Black Power shaped Ali’s global political imagination, offering him a framework to link his religious beliefs, athletic gifts, and outspoken personality. His odyssey helped fuel campus protests, emboldened medal-winning black athletes to raise defiant black-gloved fists at the Mexico City Olympics of 1968, brought anti-war sentiment into American living rooms and contoured wider debates over race and democracy that endure to this day.
Ali never rejected his political radicalism; he merely refined it. He incorporated many themes of his youthful activism into his career as a human-rights activist, philanthropist and global ambassador.
In old age, Ali became a universal icon — one whose legend at times stubbornly resisted the facts of his complicated legacy.
Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and professor of history at the University of Texas-Austin. His most recent book is Stokely: A Life.