Learning from The Greatest: Muhammad Ali's life offers lessons for today's disadvantaged

Professor John M Davis examines how Muhammad Ali overcame disadvantage to unite people towards a more progressive view

THE world will be focusing on Louisville, Kentucky, on Thursday and Friday where services will take place for Muhammad Ali at the Freedom Hall and at the Yum! Centre before he is laid to rest at Cave Hill Cemetery.

Scots have long had a need to employ iconic figures from American popular culture as an antidote to the anglicised media offered up by London-focused television and film outlets. Muhammad Ali was one such figure – he was a hero to several generations of Scots and particularly to young people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ali inspired young people because he encouraged them to imagine themselves achieving sporting success, required them to raise their aspirations, urged them to question those who might seek to restrict their lives and compelled them to consider how they might collaborate with others to make the world a better place.

Ali was a champion boxer in the ring and he was a champion of social justice outside the ring. He didn’t just talk about justice but also sought to practice what he preached. He refused to set aside his beliefs even when they brought personal detriment.

Ali’s life acts as a telling example of intersectionality, of how class, race and exploitation led to the early onset of Parkinson’s Disease. The concept of intersectionality has been employed by academics who explore the connections between identity issues such as disability, gender, religion, sexuality, class and ethnicity. It enables us to consider how societal barriers, discrimination and injustice stem from more than one single issue.

The term intersectionality is also applies to situations where people are 'silenced', e.g. their identities are not given credence in established and establishment thinking and writing. Race, class, exploitation and disability were all at play throughout Ali’s life.

Ali was a champion boxer in the ring and he was a champion of social justice outside the ring. He didn’t just talk about justice but also sought to practice what he preached. He refused to set aside his beliefs even when they brought personal detriment.

Ali's refusal to be silenced during the Vietnam War, demonstrated his ability to courageously stick with his faith even when confronted by huge pressures to toe the establishment line. He was attacked for his perspectives, yet he stood tall, and, he was proved right in the end. 

That’s the measure of his courage – he stood up against the Vietnam War when it would have been all too easy to side with the status quo, ignore the slaughter and put up with the injustice.

He was attacked for his perspectives, yet he stood tall, and, he was proved right in the end. That’s the measure of his courage – he stood up against the Vietnam War when it would have been all too easy to side with the status quo.

For most of Ali’s life he promoted the importance of community, accepting who you were, acting to help others and leading as full a life as was possible. He promoted the concepts of love, not hate; hope, not fear; and optimism, not defeatism. 
This was the man who, when dismissing the word 'impossible', said that the word was defined by small minded people with no inclination to explore the power they had to change the world.

In the UK, the Black History Month website attempts to redress the silencing of black lives and culture. It does so by celebrating, among a range of issues, the stories of black sports stars, the contributions of the Windrush Generation and the work of black musicians. 

Recent Black History posts include an article on the musician and singer Michael Kiwanuka. Kiwanuka songs 'Black Man in a White World' and 'Love and Hate' have been fittingly connected by some TV channels to film footage of Muhammad Ali’s life.

There is something echoingly mournful about the song 'Love and Hate' that just seems to express the deep loss of this remarkable man. It may be unkind to put the weight of Ali’s achievements on Kiwanuka’s young shoulders but when we look back in later years, might 'Love and Hate' or 'Black Man in a White World' act as a telling reminder of this moment? The moment when we lost 'The Greatest'?

Some argued that Ali gifted the establishment the ammunition to discredit him and to diminish his appeal, while others argued, somewhat contradictorily, that his fire was diminished because, in the end, he became a member of the establishment (e.g. when lighting the Olympic torch). This latter view was an uncharitably reductionist perspective that ignored how Ali evolved through his life experiences.

It might be closer to the truth to recognise some key points: that the world changed in 1965 (with the removal of Jim Crow); that this change created space for some of Ali’s views to gain acceptance; and that this change in some way opened up the possibility for greater recognition of black lives and black histories.

Ali spoke out at a time in the USA when black and white people who opposed segregation, discrimination, exploitation and racism were attacked, beaten and killed by those who opposed their views. You might think that the USA is no longer like that, you might be wrong and you might run the risk of underplaying the lethal racism that to this day persists in America. The type of lethal racism that requires us to exclaim that 'Black Lives Matter' and the type of lethal racism that reminds us, as the French say, that the more things change the more they stay the same.

He had the ability, through humour, poetry and sheer braggadocio, to rise above the heads of the journalists who were trying to sidetrack his views. He would look beyond the journalists and speak directly to the television audience at home. 

Ali stood up at a time when black and working class people were required to defer to their 'betters' or expect punishment. Peneil Joseph has written that this made Ali "unforgivably black". Ali emerged as a necessarily unapologetic emblem of black power, yet he was ridiculed, attacked and demonised by the establishment.

In the era of Jim Crow segregation, Ali was a threat to the white establishment because he gave us all lessons in how to confront elites. His approach involved uncompromisingly setting up an alternative discourse to the taken for granted mediocrity pushed out by the mainstream media.

Joseph argues that Ali’s courage and ability to confront prejudice "enabled later sports stars to unapologetically embrace their political and religious beliefs and adopt a proud new racial identity". In the age of overly media-trained sports stars, it is not that clear that all sports figures feel able to speak out on human rights issues but some (e.g. LGBT football and rugby stars) may have been more likely to do so because Ali opened the door for a greater engagement with ideas concerning equity, identity and diversity.

Yet, paradoxically, at the same time as standing as a beacon for change, hope and humanity, Ali had to face his own limitations for which he voiced regret, such as: shunning Malcolm X; unfaithfulness to his wives; or unfairly attacking opponents such as Smoking Joe Frazier.

Ali was no saint, yet his imperfections made him appear more human and fuelled his mass appeal. He had the ability, through humour, poetry and sheer braggadocio, to rise above the heads of the journalists who were trying to sidetrack his views. He would look beyond the journalists and speak directly to the television audience at home. 

At some point, most of the early interviews include questions about Ali’s 'divisiveness'. Similar such questions are now put forward about leftwing ideas such as fair wages, workers' rights and the need for food security.

This approach enabled him to outwit the television men and women who were given the job of putting forward counter arguments to Ali’s loud and clear messages. At some point, most of the early interviews include questions about Ali’s 'divisiveness'. Similar such questions are now put forward about leftwing ideas such as fair wages, workers' rights and the need for food security. It is as if we have come full circle. Then, as now, sensible ideas concerning fairness are painted as 'radical'. 

It has become radical to ask that people have basics such as housing, clothing and food. It has become radical to attack the inequity of neo-liberal economies and call for policies to end poverty, enable universal childcare and ensure that elites pay their taxes.

Working class people in the UK celebrated Ali’s undoubtedly 'radical' views in the 1960s, so much so that there have been calls in London for a monument to the man who created a vibrancy for working class people and suggested that working class people could achieve anything. 

In spite of initial resistance, Ali’s ideas were also taken up by the middle classes of the 1960s – as the realisation dawned concerning conditions in Vietnam.

Such a shift has enabled publications of the left to talk, this week, of how Ali became a unifier, a force for good and a campaigner for the oppressed. For example, the New Statesman highlighted that fact that Ali negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of American hostages, served as a United Nations messenger of peace and challenged the US blockade of Cuba (including donating $1m in medical aid).

Ali’s wide appeal meant that he appeared on the BBC Parkinson show three times – there were only two guests that could add over two million viewers to a Parkinson show. The other was Billy Connolly. Connolly and Ali were adept at utilising working class humour as part of their anti-establishment approach and in order to project their own self-narrative.

In spite of initial resistance, Ali’s ideas were also taken up by the middle classes of the 1960s – as the realisation dawned concerning conditions in Vietnam. Such a shift has enabled publications of the left to talk, this week, of how Ali became a unifier, a force for good and a campaigner for the oppressed.

Yet, some people sought to define their appearances on the Parkinson show as disgusting. Such people complained that unacceptable views were being promoted - 'on the BBC', of all places! The lesson that Ali’s and Connolly’s lives provides us with is that we should never let other people define our self-narrative. In the end, by staying true to themselves, Ali and Connolly managed to gain a broad following.

Ali and Connolly were also connected by their experience of living with Parkinson’s Disease while in the public eye. Ali exhibited and Connolly continues to exhibit a refreshingly stoic approach to Parkinson’s, promoting a positive, disability pride approach to their impairment.

Similarly, Ali’s legacy that 'black is beautiful', that black people have as much right to be heard as anyone else, that waging war is wrong, that disabled people can get involved in negotiating peace deals; is as important now as it ever was. 

Indeed, at the present time, where social media enables lightning quick character assassination, Ali’s life acts as a lesson for us all on the need to recognise that perfection is the inseparable twin of imperfection. It reminds us of the need to avoid jumping to stereotypical assumptions and encourages us to calmly take time to consider ideas, new and old, in their longer term context.

In the 1960s, judgemental people who were seeking to protect their entitlements sought to write off Ali’s importance to the world. They sought to quickly judge Ali’s stance on Vietnam, his support for black power and his conversion to Islam. Yet, Ali’s appeal outlived all those judgements.

Ali’s legacy that 'black is beautiful', that black people have as much right to be heard as anyone else, that waging war is wrong, that disabled people can get involved in negotiating peace deals; is as important now as it ever was. 

Ali’s life and politics leave two important messages for people living in Scotland (if you will forgive this parochial conclusion). The first is that when faced with an overpowering establishment you must assert your independence as strongly, unapologetically and vociferously as is possible. You must refuse to be 'othered' and create a very strong counter discourse to protect your identities. 

The second is that once people have accepted your independence, your counter narrative has gained recognition and you have wrested power away from those who have sought to disempower you, it is time to promote community unity, to unite middle and working class people and to encourage them to work with you to collectively use their power to achieve good in their communities, their nation and the world.

Professor John M Davis, @Inde_for_Inde is an independently minded academic working in the fields of childhood, disability and social justice. The views put forward in this article are his alone and in no way represent the views of his employer or the bodies that fund his research.

Picture courtesy of the BBC

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