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Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

In 1962, boxing writers and fans considered Cassius Clay an obnoxious self-promoter, and few believed that he would become the heavyweight champion of the world. But Malcolm X, the most famous minister in the Nation of Islam – a sect many white Americans deemed a hate cult – saw the potential in Clay, not just for boxing greatness, but as a means of spreading the Nation’s message. The two became fast friends, keeping their interactions secret from the press for fear of jeopardizing Clay’s career. Clay began living a double life – a patriotic “good Negro” in public, and a radical reformer behind the scenes. Soon, however, their friendship would sour, with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.

– frontispiece, BLOOD BROTHERS, by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith, Basic Books, New York, 2016

After the young Cassius Marcellus Clay won Olympic gold in the light-heavyweight boxing class at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, he turned professional under a management syndicate of twelve millionaires from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

There is absolutely no indication that any of these twelve rich men were black, and Cassius Marcellus was, of course, a black American. The issue of race in America was not one with which the people of British Honduras, which had a majority black population in 1960, were well acquainted at the time. The slavery of black people had been abolished in the United States in 1865, but it was followed by something called “Jim Crow” in the mainly agricultural Southern states.

Jim Crow was something like apartheid in South Africa, in that it involved the separation of the white and black races. Jim Crow was supposed to mean “separate but equal,” but the race separation, referred to as “segregation” in America, led to the growth of plush, luxurious white facilities and institutions, such as schools, hospitals, entertainment centers, and other public institutions, while their black equivalents were rundown and dilapidated. In addition, and more startling, the violence perpetrated with impunity by whites against blacks, featuring lynchings organized by racist white groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, became the bloody brand of Jim Crow in the American South.

Early In the twentieth century, there was great movement of working class blacks from the South to the industrial cities in the North, such as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, and so on, where the racism was less brutal, but no less real. After World War I (1914-1918), a black Jamaican named Marcus Garvey set up his organization’s headquarters in the Harlem section of New York City and began preaching a doctrine of “African redemption.” Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was a phenomenal international success, but then the U.S. federal government basically framed Garvey on mail fraud charges and imprisoned him in 1925 in Atlanta State Penitentiary in Georgia.

A young black native of Georgia by the name of Elijah Poole had been influenced by Garveyite teachings before he moved to Detroit in the early 1930s. There, Elijah Poole was taught the fundamentals of Islam by one W. Fard Muhammad, who subsequently disappeared. Elijah Poole then founded the Nation of Islam, a religious organization with Muslim guidelines but a set of special beliefs outside of orthodox Islam which had a special attraction for working class black Americans. Elijah Poole became known as the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah.

Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s tiny religion became a national force in the United States after Malcolm X, formerly Malcolm Little, was released from jail in the early 1950s and proceeded to become the Nation of Islam’s most brilliant and charismatic spokesman and organizer across the continental United States.

You could not have grown up black in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1950s and not have experienced the harshness of white racism. Even though Cassius Clay’s unique boxing gifts had catapulted him into Olympic fame and made him favored by, and an investment target of, the aforementioned twelve white Kentucky millionaires, his psyche bore the scars of American racism. To make a long story short, Cassius was attracted to the Nation of Islam in Miami, where he was being trained by Angelo Dundee early in his professional boxing career, and then he was introduced to the sensational Malcolm X. The two men became close friends, “blood brothers,” as a book by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith published earlier this year describes them, and Malcolm X was by Cassius’ side when he shocked America and the world by defeating the fearsome Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title on February 25, 1964.

At Cassius’ moment of euphoric triumph, however, Malcolm was experiencing a serious problem. Two months and three days before Clay defeated Liston, U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Pressured after the assassination by the New York City media, Malcolm had made comments which caused him to be suspended for ninety days by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.

While Malcolm was still suspended, Cassius announced soon after winning the championship that he had become a so-called Black Muslim, a member of Hon. Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. There were powerful ministers close to Elijah who preferred for Malcolm X not to be reinstated in the Nation, for their own reasons. The upshot of the situation was that Cassius had to choose between Malcolm X and the mainstream Nation of Islam. He chose the Nation, and the Hon. Elijah Muhammad gave Cassius Clay his new name – Muhammad Ali.

Malcolm and the Nation of Islam became estranged, and were very bitter opponents when Malcolm was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan in February of 1965.

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali was at the peak of his career, the United States government stripped him of his world heavyweight title because he refused to be conscripted into the American war effort in South Vietnam. At that point, Muhammad Ali became probably the most hated black man in the United States, but he also began to become an international resistance icon whose appeal spread to all peoples and all nations.

At Muhammad Ali’s funeral this week in Louisville, Kentucky, the featured of three speakers will be Bill Clinton, two-time President of the United States (1992-2000), and the husband of the Democratic Party’s U.S. presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. We do not see the name of Minister Louis Farrakhan anywhere on the funeral program. Muhammad Ali’s, then, will not be a Nation of Islam funeral. It will be a Muslim funeral, but it will not be a Nation of Islam funeral.

After the death of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad in 1975, Wallace Dean Muhammad, his son and successor, had taken the Nation of Islam into the body of international orthodox Islam. After a couple years, however, Minister Louis Farrakhan broke away and re-established his version of the original Nation of Islam, as originally organized by the Hon. Elijah Muhammad.

It would take a long time to try to explain the significance of Muhammad Ali between 1964 and 1980, say, for the oppressed peoples of the world, especially black people. At some point after that period, Muhammad Ali became a national hero in the United States and an accepted symbol of the superpower United States. How exactly that transition from villain to hero came about, we are not in a position to say.

This was a great brother, and one who will always be loved. We Belizeans have a special love for Muhammad Ali, because he visited Belize in July of 1965 when we were nowhere on the map. Muhammad Ali made us feel special 51 years ago. For that, he will be cherished forever.

Over the last decades of his life, America claimed Muhammad Ali as their own. This was, arguably, as it should have been. But there was a time when the same Americans rejected and reviled Ali, and for that, we, the oppressed peoples of the earth, loved him more. We loved him and prayed for him at the moments of his greatest danger, such as October of 1974 in Zaire. This was a true hero: his gallantry, style and dignity on the battlefield were unmatched. To borrow the words of Hemingway, there was “grace under pressure” in the life and death of the one Muhammad Ali.

Farewell, beloved and heroic brother. Eternal peace be unto you. As-salaam-alaikum. Here was an Ali. When comes such another?

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