Muhammad Ali: Social Justice, Racial Equality and The Fight for Freedom

Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a brash, charismatic, trash talking boxing champ—he was a social activist outside the ring. Ali was a three-time world champion boxer whose incredible boxing style infused power, speed and agility more precisely than any fighter to come before him. Muhammad certainly did “sting like a bee” in his fight for racial equality, social justice and religious freedom.

“The negro in America, you’ve put fear in him ever since he’s been here. And the only thing you hope is that it’s instilled in me, but it ain’t!”

As the most famous athlete in the world—to fearlessly and openly decry war in the 1960’s would be considered by many to be blasphemous.

The most controversial sports figure of the 20th century died on Friday, in a Phoenix-area hospital. The international icon was 74-years old. The New York Times reveals his death was confirmed by Bob Gunnell—a family spokesperson. Muhammad had Parkinson’s disease for more than 30 years and was admitted to the hospital on Friday with what Gunnell called a “respiratory problem,” no other details have been provided.

Fighting Spirit Against U.S. Government, Refuses Vietnam Draft

Religion continued to play an important role in Ali’s life. In 1967, Ali refused to to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, due to his religious beliefs. He was banned from boxing for three years for this incredibly bold stance. Muhammad simply used that time to speak out against the war on college campuses.

After converting to Islam, Ali stood firm in the use of his name, Muhammad Ali in the media. When an African-American reporter called him “Cassius Clay,” Muhammad responded with the following.

“Now why do you have to be—of all people, to keep saying ‘Cassius Clay?’ My name is Muhammad Ali and you will announce it right there, in the center of that ring after the fight, if you don’t do it now.”

Muhammad has been respected for sacrificing three years of his boxing prime and millions of dollars for his antiwar principals. Not to be silenced about the social inequalities in America during the 1960’s and 1970’s, Muhammad Ali set off a cultural revolution.

“We have never heard the truth! And truth makes you free—can’t you look at me and tell that I’m free? Can’t you see the way that I talk and see that I’m free?”

Muhammad continues in an interview, “Everything ‘good’ and ‘of authority’ was made white. We look at Jesus, we see a white [man] with blonde hair, blue eyes…”

Clips of Ali speaking in public, holding a book saying, “‘Angel Food Cake’, is the white cake and the ‘Devils Food Cake’ is the chocolate cake.”

“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. 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.”

Ali also said, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Going to Vietnam technically would strip him away from his best fighting years and cost him millions of dollars. This single rebellious act transformed Ali from a boisterous, egotistical boxer to a magnetic man who stood for social justice and racial equality.

muhammad ali social justice and racism
Religious Beliefs Cause Tension In Marriage, Ali Stands Firm

Second wife, Sonji Ali tried to contain the legend,”Well, I’m a little more relaxed and settled. As you can see, I have a ‘pretty wife’ here and I don’t have to talk like I do. She don’t like me to talk too much, do you?” Muhammad chuckles telling the reporter, “She told me to ‘be quiet’.” The reporter asks why Sonji Ali informed Muhammad to stay mum, “Actions speak louder for themselves. He don’t have to talk anymore.”

Ali and his wife had some tension due to the champ’s faith. Sonji Roi Ali, divorced Ali 16-months later in January 1966. The second wife blamed their break up on pressures to adopt the Muslim dress code and convert to Islam, claiming she was threatened if she failed to conform, “I wasn’t going to take on all the Muslims…If I had, I probably would have ended up dead.”

Later on in life, Ali has been a beloved man, noted to be accommodating to all. Muhammad Ali was reportedly divorced three times and father to nine children. Muhammad and Yolanda ‘Lonnie’ Ali (current wife, now widowed) lived in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“He spent most of his time at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., often watching Western movies and old black-and-white TV shows.”

The couple never had children but adopted a five-year-old boy, Asaad Amin, who they raised as their own. The New York Time reports his wife stated he rarely did TV interviews no longer liked the way he looked on camera,

“But he loved the adoration of crowds…Even though he became vulnerable in ways he couldn’t control, he never lost his childlike innocence, his sunny, positive nature. Jokes and pranks and magic tricks. He wanted to entertain people, to make them happy.”

[Photo by Joe Raedle/ Getty Images]