Yesterday was Muhammad Ali’s funeral. He passed away on Shabbat, so I had time to privately deal with the news. 2016 has been a devastating year in terms of deaths of iconic figures. However Muhammad’s death was different. He had been ailing for quite a few years and it’s like the Creator has finally decided to call him home. Prior to his passing I marveled at Muhammad Ali the revolutionary…the Black Muslim, much more so than Ali the athlete. I would pull up his old interviews on YouTube and just be in awe of what he had to say and how he said it. He was the proud, bold, and fearless voice of the thinking American Black man. He wasn’t formally educated…and it showed; but that’s what made what he had to say even better. He didn’t mince words through a filter of politeness and academic refinery.
So the above is an example of how unapologetic Muhammad Ali was. I personally do not agree with him, but I am not the type of person who gets miffed at those who don’t share my opinions. In fact, I have the utmost respect for people who stand by their convictions in spite of what the larger society believes. And in all honesty, Ali’s opinions on interracial relationships is not that unique when looking at that particular generation of African-Americans. In fact, I’ve heard my own grandfather state very similar sentiments in regards to interracial relationships…especially in regards to the quality of life that multi-racial children have.
In spite of the similar sentiments on interracial relationships though, Ali wasn’t really a hero to that generation. My grandfather scoffed at Ali changing his name from Cassius Clay. My grandmother as well wasn’t too enamored with the brash and critical speech rattled off by members of the Nation of Islam. Understand that for them, Martin Luther King, Jr. was practically a saint. He was Christian and humble and choose his words carefully as not to offend anyone. They, and many Black Americans were into doing the right thing and staying patriotic to America. Draft dodgers were looked upon with disdain. In fact, anyone trying to ‘stick it to the man’ was viewed this way. For centuries, Blacks were seen as a problem in America. My grandparent’s generation were doing all that they could to fight that stereotype. That meant being good Christians, being civil, law-abiding, and educated. While groups like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam caught media attention, for most Black Americans, they were too extreme for their tastes…an embarrassment even.
Of course nowadays, things have changed. We’ve come to admire the extreme. Black Americans living in the information age are desperately trying to communicate our side of the story in regards to inequality and injustice. And we are no longer so easily embarrassed. And to some extent White Americans are nowadays not so easily offended. And so it took a full generation for Muhammad Ali’s legacy to come full circle and be looked upon with respect and awe. If there was ever a celebrity personality whose attitude and mindset were ahead of their time, that celebrity would be Muhammad Ali.
Finally there’s another reason why I respected Muhammad…and that’s because of his respect, no his love, for others; Jews included. He did not limit his heart by superficial things like race and religion. Now, if he chose to draw a line when it comes to marriage and family…that’s his prerogative. If most people were honest with themselves, they would admit that they have very strong preferences in regards to their choice of mates as well. Anyway, Ali showed us that you can be a Muslim and not hate Jews. Also you could be a Muslim and still be a loyal American citizen.
Now that Muhammad Ali is gone, I hope that we’ve learned enough from him to be better in the future. We weren’t ready for those lessons in the past, but hopefully we are ready (and willing) to apply them now.