Today, June 10, 2016, a great African American, Muhammad Ali, will be laid to rest at his birthplace, Louisville, Kentucky in the United States of America.
On this momentous day the Thabo Mbeki Foundation joins the Muhammad Ali family, the world family of boxers and sportspeople, the global Muslim Community, the peoples of the US and the rest of the world to say a sad and final but fond farewell to one who served us as a lodestar!
Muhammad Ali became an everlasting world icon during a period in US and world history when all humanity was faced with great challenges which demanded that all people of conscience must declare on which side they stood, responding to the clarion call – brother and sister, whose side are you on!
This was a time when the African American people had risen up in determined struggle, supported by others of their freedom-loving compatriots, to claim their right to be treated as equals in the country that had become their home, their forebears having arrived as slaves.
It was a time when the erstwhile black oppressed had to lead the global fight to banish the ignoble use of racial distinctions as a means to construct a discriminatory, oppressive and exploitative social order.
It was a time when these Africans in the Diaspora had to make the assertion and demonstrate that they had rid themselves of all feelings of inferiority and shared the courage to celebrate their identity as a people that was African, black and proud, together with their brothers and sisters in Africa and everywhere else in the world.
It was a time when superior Western military power was being abused to dictate to the peoples of the South, exemplified by and focused on those of Vietnam, that they had no sovereign and alienable right to determine their destiny. This served to assert the continuing right of a powerful West to impose an imperialist diktat on the peoples of the South who had been victims of the pernicious system of colonialism.
That deadly imperialist outreach, which cost the lives of many among the former victims of colonialism and imperialist domination, as in Vietnam and elsewhere, posed an historic question to other peoples of the South, including the African Diaspora in the US, about where they stood with regard to that imperialist outreach.
It presented a direct and immediate challenge as to whether those who were themselves victims of abuse in their own countries by the same imperialist forces which were raining death on the Vietnamese people, including through the use of chemical and biological weapons, would rise and act in solidarity to help end the mass slaughter in Vietnam and Indo-China.
It served as a litmus test concerning whether, late in the 20th Century, it was still possible to give practical expression to the concept and practice of human solidarity, informed by the humane principles – an injury to one is an injury to all, and we are, one to the other, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers!
This was a time when history inquired of all the generations that lived whether they had the courage and conscience to sacrifice all their selfish comforts to insist that human society had to be constructed on a firm basis of an ethical and humane value system, focused on the building of people-centred social systems.
Muhammad Ali served as our lodestar because by word and deed he answered this question unequivocally in the affirmative, refusing to sit precariously balanced on the proverbial fence, because he had the courage practically to answer the question – brother, whose side are you on!
Many of us, like others in our country and elsewhere in the world, came to know and admire Muhammad Ali as a Heavyweight Boxer, and especially as the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion.
For us, here was an extraordinary sportsman who was truly an outstanding artist and consummate tactician and strategist in terms of the demonstration of his skill in the Ring – an unequalled black and African Champion of the World of exceptional agility in his hands and feet and mind.
His clever and poetic words – like I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee – served both as a memorable occasion of amusement and a mark of identification of an inimitable sportsperson who had no equal in the world, because none in all the sports codes could match his oratorical skills.
Then, as South Africans, we did not understand what it had meant that his parents had named him ‘Cassius Marcellus Clay’ after a 19th Century abolitionist of slavery in Kentucky, his US home State, who had supported the campaign both gradually to free the African slaves and facilitate their return to Africa, the Continent from which their forebears had been forcibly exported.
So must it have been that he was brought up at home on painful memories of the slavery his people had had to bear and the struggle to abolish that slavery, and therefore the Underground Railroad, the US Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent Jim Crow period.
Thus his assumption of a new name, Muhammad Ali, marked not only his conversion to Islam but also a conscious break with a past which would otherwise define him not as a unique human being worthy of all due respect and treatment, but as nothing more than the offspring of former slaves.
This paradigm also prescribed that he should forever be indebted to good-hearted white people, like Cassius Marcellus Clay, who wanted him and his folk both freed from bondage and effectively transported out of the America his ancestors had helped to build, banished to far away ‘dark’ Africa, there to invent a new life for themselves out of sight of the former slave owners.
No longer known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, Muhammad Ali defined himself by word and deed as the great African American who has served as our lodestar.
During the period when his people were engaged in the historic Civil Rights struggle, as we were engaged in a similarly difficult struggle to defeat the apartheid system, he rejected racism and said:
“Hating people because of their colour is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which colour does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
Inspired by that hatred of racism, Muhammad Ali once spoke by phone to the outstanding leader, Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in 1964 following his (Ali’s) first trip to Africa. By this time the FBI was tapping Rev King’s telephone as part of its hostile surveillance of this US and world leader.
The abbreviated FBI report of that telephone conversation between Mohammad Ali (‘C’, for Clay) and Rev King (‘MLK’) said:
“C. said that he is keeping up with MLK, that MLK is his brother, and he’s with him 100 percent, but can’t take any chances, that MLK should take care of himself, that MLK is known worldwide and should watch out for them whites. Said people in Nigeria, Egypt, and Ghana asked about MLK.”
Muhammad Ali, the outstanding Champion Heavyweight Boxer, an African American, confirmed that he was indeed part of the then US Civil Rights struggle, fully conscious that the powers-that-be, “them whites”, would do everything possible to destroy both him and Rev King.
A freedom fighter, he was liberated from any sense of fear and all feelings of inferiority, having become what Malcolm X fondly referred to as ‘a field Negro’ rather than a subservient ‘house Negro’.
He therefore defined himself in these words:
“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.”
In April 1967 Muhammad Ali spoke to the students at the historically black Howard University in Washington D.C. and told the students:
“All you need to do is know yourself to set yourself free. We don’t know who we are. We call ourselves Negroes, but have you ever heard of a place called Negroland?”
To drive home his message that the African Americans had to involve themselves in a thoroughgoing rejection of racism, and spurred on by calls from the students to “Tell it as it is!”, he explained the racist paradigm in these words:
“See, we have been brainwashed, everything good and of authority was made white. We look at Jesus, we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels, we see white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure if there’s a heaven in the sky and the Coloured folks die and go to heaven, where are the Coloured angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white!”
Six days after his 1967 speech at Howard University he had to report to a recruitment centre in Houston, Texas to be conscripted into the Army to fight in Vietnam. However he had already indicated his attitude to this conscription by responding to journalists who were asking him whether he was prepared to kill the Vietnamese, saying – “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong!”
He refused to be conscripted on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector on religious grounds. The boxing authorities immediately stripped him of his heavyweight title and banned him from boxing for three years. A Court found him guilty of dodging the draft and sentenced him to five years imprisonment and fined him $10 000.
He appealed against his conviction and sentence and finally in 1971 the US Supreme Court ruled in his favour. He had returned to boxing the previous year, after another Court had overturned the decision which had banned him from boxing for three years.
A week ahead of his rejection of his conscription orders Muhammad Ali had made a famous statement which defined the relationship between the Civil Rights struggle against racism in the United States and the mass struggle in the country against the imperialist war in Vietnam. He said:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
“But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
Muhammad Ali regained his title as the Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1974 when he defeated George Foreman in the well-known “Rumble in the Jungle” match held in Kinshasa in the then Zaire.
Many of us followed that fight closely and celebrated when Muhammad Ali won. What we were celebrating was not only victory in a boxing ring.
We were also saluting the courage Muhammad Ali had shown as he sustained, simultaneously, the fight against racism, the fight against a war of aggression and the fight to defeat those who had sought to deny him the fruits of his immense skill as a boxer, simply because he had dared to stand up for what was just both in the US and elsewhere in the world.
His victorious ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ on our Continent and his other rumbles in his own country, the US, communicated the message to us that our own struggle against racial oppression and a war that had been imposed on us by an arrogant apartheid regime would emerge victorious.
It was right that in 2005, many years after he had left the ring in 1981, with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses, President George W. Bush awarded Muhammad Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony.
We must leave the last word on Muhammad Ali to his fellow freedom fighter and activist for justice and peace, the outstanding singer and artiste, Harry Belafonte, who once said:
“Muhammad Ali was the genuine product of what the (Civil Rights) movement inspired. He took on all the characteristics and was the embodiment of the thrust of the movement. He was courageous. He put the class issues on the line. He didn’t care about money. He brought America to its most wonderful and naked moment…
“He was in many ways as inspiring as Dr King, as inspiring as Malcolm (X). Out of the womb of oppression, he was our phoenix…They could not break his spirit, nor deny his moral imperative.”
May our Champion, the great Muhammad Ali, rest in eternal peace!