Muhammad Ali is one of the most controversial, outspoken and revolutionary athletes of all time. He did and said things that weren’t expected back in the 1960s and 1970s and even today, it’s hard to think of one athlete that would take the stance that he did if put in the same position.
One of his most notable stances came in 1967 when he refused to answer to his former name, Cassius Clay or take the oath in order for him to serve in the army during the Vietnam War. This led to Ali’s arrest and eventually a conviction that was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A month before his military induction, he explained why he wouldn’t enlist to fight in Vietnam.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
No, I am not going ten thousand 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 put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right 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…
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
As stated earlier, this defiance wasn’t recommended back then and in many cases, the average person may have been physically abused or killed for such stances. These days no one’s life is at stake, but the passion and drive are lacking. Other than Colin Kaepernick, if put in this position, I honestly can’t name another African-American athlete with this much depth or courage to step out and do more than talk a good game. We live in a society where we are encouraged to be our own person and speak out as a normal citizen, but as a celebrity, or more so an athlete, being politically correct has become the standard.
Over the past half-century, things have drastically changed but the foundation remains the same. African-Americans have equal rights and are treated better in most cases, but the principle remains the same. As a black man, I’ve noticed the systematic approach to my demise as a man and a professional- from not getting the same opportunities as a white person for an insignificant reason to the obvious cover ups of the real reasons to hide from discrimination lawsuits. I noticed when I speak out, take stances, or appear to have an attitude, I’m too controversial or a thug, but when a white man says or does the exact same thing, in the same setting, over the same topic, he’s just speaking his mind or he’s “just a little upset.”
All this to say, Muhammad Ali had an unbelievable impact on this country and more significantly, on the black community by paving the way for many of us to speak our minds without hesitation. It would just be nice to see people with the platform to make a difference actually do so and take a chance. We need more social revolutionaries like Ali was in his time. The fight for equality isn’t nearly over.