*This article was originally written just after Ali’s death, but shall always remain relevant.
In the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death, many people — either by way of ignorance or just sheer bigotry and misplaced hate — are shamefully using his old interviews and speeches in an effort to fan flames that ultimately promote division and racial tension, between people who would otherwise be potential allies. These imbeciles, whether claiming to be his supporters or not, are painfully negligent regarding his life story and deeper life message; for which he came to proudly stand for in his more matured and enlightened years.
In this short writing, we will settle the debate..
The Younger Years
Muhammad Ali back in 1954 when he first started boxing at the age of 12. Image Credit: AP
Like most “normal” human beings that find themselves stuck in an unjust society, Muhammad Ali was deeply disturbed by the bigotry, and outright oppression, of the environment in which he was raised; an environment in which racism and segregation were literally mandated by law. In fact his mother recalled that when he was just a young child, he was denied a drink of water on the grounds of him being black. Hopefully I do not have to explain what type of influence this would have on the innocent mind of a child.
Ali also grew up in a time when the black population of North America were making a massive concerted push for human rights. It was a revolutionary time of upheaval and rebellion, a time where deep seeded repressed feelings and emotions were manifesting. Leading the charge were people from all walks of life; some who took a more peaceful approach, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and others who took a more vigilant approach, such as Malcolm X.
Image Credit: JetCityOrange
Malcolm X was a man just as remarkable as Ali — or any other human being for that matter — and had a massive influence on the legendary heavy weight’s chosen path in life. X was the spokesman for the very controversial black “militant” separatist movement, the Nation of Islam, and at a rally Ali attended in 1962, he heard the charismatic Malcolm X speak. This, as described by author Johnny Smith, “made a profound impression on young Cassius Clay” that would ultimately culminate in his decision to join the Nation.
Back then, the movement was an openly racist black supremacist organization, that literally preached white people were the devil, and were the result of a genetic experiment that biologically predisposed them toward being evil. While the uncompromising bigotry of such an ideology seems fairly obvious for any self educated human being to discern, and see through today, the political climate of the time absolutely afforded such a grandiose perspective, for the simple fact that it helped make sense of an unjust, and cruel world, that the average black person simply could not understand.
Furthermore, the Nation of Islam demonstrated a level of assertive power, and offered an empowering sense of self, that no other major black organization did. They offered protection, identity, brotherhood, and purpose, at a time when the black population were starved for such things. And, for any young black discontented man, like Ali, such an organization appealed for obvious reasons.
Malcolm X Grows Disillusioned
Malcolm X, who at one point deeply revered the Nation’s alleged prophet Elijah Muhammad (who he earnestly believed had saved him from a life of ignorance, crime, addiction, prison and mental slavery), became disillusioned with the organization after several significant events, including his discovery that “the prophet” was a philanderer, guilty of committing adultery with teenage girls. These events ultimately led to Malcolm’s departure from the organization.
It should also be mentioned that X, who is commonly branded as a racist too, explained to the press after breaking free from The Nation, that;
“I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone else’s control. I feel what I’m thinking and saying now is for myself. Before, it was for and by the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Now I think with my own mind…”
After his trip to Mecca, X made it very clear that he had one of the most profound experiences of his entire life, and it changed his outlook forever. He began publicly preaching on talk shows, at Universities and any other logical platform available, that white people and black people — and people of all different skin colors — needed to work together, in solidarity, against the “international Western power structure“, and that “a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks.”
In other words, his mind had been opened to a much deeper Truth; that skin color does not determine morality. And, in order to be able to challenge what he had finally come to apprehend as a much larger system of exploitation — that spanned the entire globe — a certain level of cooperation and solidarity, between all common people of all different skin colors, needed to first be achieved.
Sadly, in spite of his noble, and enlightened efforts, X was murdered by Nation members, who some believe were aided/encouraged (perhaps vice versa) by organizations like the police, the FBI and CIA.
Ali Under The Spell of The Nation
Muhammad Ali and his brother Rudy (L) speaking with Elijah Muhammad, 1969. Photo credit: Bettmann
Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, was still very much under the spell of the “Honorable” Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam; and they exploited him politically, and some say financially, as a result. So severe was their control over the young 22 year old’s mind, that Ali even turned his back on his former mentor Malcolm X, simply because he justifiably challenged the authority of Elijah Muhammad and began to warn the black population about the dangers of joining the Nation. This was a decision that Ali later admitted he would regret for the rest of his life, whilst also acknowledging that Malcolm “was right about so many things… a visionary, ahead of us all”.
This control that the Nation exercised over the mind (and mouth) of the very young, and impressionable Ali, undoubtedly manifested in what could incontestably be labelled as racist comments at times, just as was the case with Malcolm X before. In one particular instance for example, in an interview with Michael Parkinson on the BBC in 1974, Ali in all seriousness, proclaimed that;
“Elijah Muhammad has been preaching that the white man of America – God taught him – is the blue-eyed, blond-headed Devil! No good in him, no justice, he’s gonna be destroyed! His rule is over! He is the Devil!”
Regardless of any excuses we would like to make on the grounds of our personal admiration for Ali, these comments are wrong for obvious reasons, as pointed out earlier by an enlightened Malcolm X. Consequently, Ali’s words should be denounced and frowned upon rather than promoted. Popularity, and authority, should never take the place of pragmatic thinking which is rooted in ethics and morality. On the contrary, ethics and morality should always be revered as the highest possible form of authority. Three decades later, however, a matured and disillusioned Ali, would “wake up” and set the record straight;
“The Nation of Islam taught that white people were devils, I don’t believe that now; in fact, I never really believed that. But when I was young, I had seen and heard so many horrible stories about the white man that this made me stop and listen.”
Through Ali’s comments we quickly come face to face with the sobering fact that, in spite of his largely incomprehensible level of fame — which many misinterpret as being some how synonymous with wisdom and Truth — he was still a young impressionable human being trying to navigate his way through this dark and confusing excursion we call “life” as best as he could. As a result, he made the common mistake — so many of us do — of latching onto the first ideology that offered him a glimpse of hope and light, even though he did not entirely agree with it. It should be mentioned for the sake of objective accuracy, that Ali did still remain a Muslim, but he subscribed to a much more moderate Sunni version, as did Malcolm X.
The Best Way We Should Remember Muhammad Ali
It is wise to remind ourselves that at one point in our lives, we could not walk upright or talk what has now become our native language. We crawled about on the floor and made sounds with our mouths in an effort to communicate with this alien world. It took us time to develop the capacities we possess today. But no adult in their right mind would ever mock another human being for having to go through this process, since it is a path we must all travel in life. Likewise, it would be painfully stupid to judge another individual’s life story, and overall character, based upon actions he took during his spiritual infancy. When you are born in a world that force feeds you hate and lies, and all manners of ignorance, it is only natural that you will be tainted by its filth, unless you grow beyond it which is what Ali eventually did.
3 years after he left the Nation of Islam, in 1979, he went to the United Nations to address the Special Committee against Apartheid “with a message of peace and spirituality… irrespective of race, religion or age.“ In 1990 he negotiated the release of 15 U.S. hostages in Iraq. In 1998 (by now more than twice the age he was when he first joined NOI) he was an officially designated UN Messenger of Peace. In 2002 he went to Afghanistan on a goodwill visit to try to help out financially. In 2004, in his book The Soul of a Butterfly, he spoke about “recognizing the divine light that is within us all,” the importance to “understand more because the work of the heart is never done,” and the need to “realize we are all members of humanity”.
It goes without further explanation then, that anyone who presents an image of Ali as being a promoter of division, racial supremacy, segregation, or intolerance, is clearly oblivious to what the man dedicated his latter, more enlightened years toward; which was peace, unity, knowledge, understanding and self realization — Ideals which great minds have invariably come to accept, and preach, for millennia in hopes that the common people might finally listen and get the message.
This undertaking is clearly not a definitive biography of Muhammad Ali, or Malcolm x, since that is a library in and unto itself. What it is meant to be, however, is a reminder to us all, that instead of falling into the alluring trap of idolizing an external image of superiority far greater than ourselves (to downplay our own potential and responsibility to create positive change) or overtly critiquing and degrading Ali and X’s characters (to make us feel better about our own inaction and not achieving our potential), let us rather embody a realistic image of a flawed human beings — just like you and I — who still managed to muster up the courage and assume the responsibility that we all invariably share; which is standing up and speaking out against injustice, exploitation and corruption, whilst working with other people — regardless of race or religion — for a better, more peaceful and free world, which is an ideal that is shared by the overwhelming majority of mankind.
“If we continue to think and live as if we belong only to different cultures and different religions, with separate missions and goals, we will always be in self-defeating competition with each other. Once we realize we are all members of humanity, we will want to compete in the spirit of love. In a competition of love we would not be running against one another, but with one another. We would be trying to gain victory for all humanity.”
— Muhammad Ali, The Soul of a Butterfly, pg xxiv
Featured Image Credit: JetCityOrange & Associated Press
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Recommended Reading in Relation to This Essay(click to be redirected for more reviews/purchase):
Carson, Clayborne (2012), Malcolm X: The FBI File 1st Edition
Breitman, George (1970), Last Year of Malcolm X: The Evolution of a Revolutionary
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (2016), Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X
Muhammad Ali (2004), The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey
Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, The Importance of Muhammad Ali, Hauser Thomas
Supreme Wisdom Lessons, Lost found muslim lesson 1 & 2
June 8, 1964, ABC news
Theodore Jones, Malcolm Knew He Was a ‘Marked Man, New York Times, February 22, 1965
December 3, 1964, Oxford University
February 15, 1965,
Alex Haley and Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965, pg 369
The Undiscovered Malcolm X: Stunning New Info on the Assassination, His Plans to Unite the Civil Rights and Black Nationalist Movements & the 3 ‘Missing’ Chapters from His Autobiography, Democracy Now, February 21, 2005
David Remnick, Ali – the gloves come off, The Observer, October 17, 1999
Adam Lusher, Muhammad Ali’s one regret: turning his back on Malcolm X, The Independent, June 6, 2016
Adam Lusher, ‘The white man is the devil’ – what the Nation of Islam taught Muhammad Ali, The Independent, June 5, 2016
Muhammad Ali Addresses Special Committee Against Apartheid, 13 April 1979, United Nations, New York