Muhammad Ali sparked an Africanist revivalist movement

 08 Jun 2016 - 0:53

By Thembisa Fakude


Much has been said about Muhamad Ali following his death on June 4. However most of what have been said in the media felt short of truly describing Ali’s contribution in altering the image and identity of black people around the world. The black image and identity have gone through interesting metamorphosis since the beginning of the civil rights movement in the US. Furthermore the globalization of Hollywood and satellite sports channels amongst others continues to alter the perception and the treatment of black people. Simply put, if you are black, look and sound the part you are assumed African American until proven otherwise. This perception provides black people with privileges and accesses that they never had before and indeed invites a certain type of treatment and attitude. Much of this new emerging reality for black people must be attributed to the likes of Muhammad Ali.
How does anyone beginning to describe a well-accomplished man like Muhammad Ali in few words? He was a not only a consummate athlete, he was civil rights activist and a humanitarian. Perhaps best few words that could describe are what he repeatedly said about himself “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”. Inside the ring he confused all his opponents by bouncing from place to place before stinging them with some of the most memorable combination of punches in boxing history. His boyish looks, humor and boxing skills somehow managed to even camouflaged the violence associated with boxing.
He became the face of boxing, inspiring young men and women alike throughout the world to take on the sport. Ali used his sharp tongue and wit to intimidate his opponents before his boxing matches. He loved television and the limelight that it brought to him and his career. He was known for turning most of his pre fight media conferences into a comedy show prompting good reviews including promotion of his fights. Ali went to reach the pinnacle of his career he clinched three world boxing championships.
Government authorities also felt his stings as a civil rights activist. In 1967 Ali refused to be drafted to the United States (US) Army Draft. He was placed under arrest for this political posture and spent almost four years of his life trying to stay out of prison. During this time he also spent a substantial amount of money fighting for his freedom for which many people including many black people harshly criticized him. He was also stripped of his world heavyweight title. Notwithstanding all the criticisms, his stance made him one of the most principled and respected civil right activists in the US and indeed the world. He became an instant international civil rights hero subsequently inspiring an international black civil rights movement. He also added a momentum to the Anti –War movement and became a true national symbol, drawing a large support from people of all walks of life. The civil rights struggle at the time in the US took advantage of Ali’s stance and publicity thereof. It was a beginning of a global movement which will later even inspire the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa a country which had similar political challenges at the time. Ali’s promotional posters depicting him as a handsome black man using an Afro comb were seen around the world. Furthermore, his repeated statements about his good looks changed most media stereotypes about black people. Popular political slogans like “Black is Beautiful” and images of black people adorning Afro hairstyle became commonplace, it was an acknowledgement of black beauty.
Ali maintained faith and principle amidst all odds to paraphrase Pastor Al Sharpton’s speech at one of the commemoration events celebrating Ali’s life. During the time when all was going well for him he remained steadfast in his beliefs, not even the US Army and the boxing authorities at the time could discourage him. Pastor Al Sharpton continued by saying that all those who were involved in the suspension and subsequent stripping of his title after he refused the draft are gone and forgotten but the man who remained steadfast to his principle is admired the world over. “Today the world stopped when the news of Ali’s death was announced” he ended.
Finally Ali’s reversion to Islam and subsequently change of his name, also sparked a global African revivalist movement. He argued at the time that European names were slave names given to Africans by slave masters. Many black people in the US and across the world started insisting on the new African identities. British civil right activist Linton Kwesi Johnson echoed similar sentiments during an interview with the BBC on the life of Ali. The fight between Ali and Ernie Terrell on 06 February 1967 better described how he felt about his new identity. Terrell insisted before the fight on calling Ali by his old name. Ali tormented Terrell in the ring for refusing to call him by his new name, insisting to be called Ali as he was stinging a barrage of punches. What still remains remarkable is how he amplified and managed to unite all people of all faiths towards a cause. His Muslim identify never overshadowed his contributions nor did it alienate people of other faiths from drawing his wisdom. It was not surprising therefore that his wish is to have a multi-faith funeral proceeding. He was a great ambassador of his faith and he will certainly be remembered as one of the wittiest sportsman of all times.

The writer is a Researcher at Directorate Studies Centre, Aljazeera Network.