MuhammadAli as a Social Justice Advocate


MontclairState University


&quotIGot No Quarrel with The Vietcong…No Vietcong Ever Called MeNigger.&quot Sometimes words resonate through time. We hear them andimmediately comprehend their importance even if some don`tunderstand their value at that moment. MuhammadAli will be chiefly remembered as a charismatic and fearless boxingchampion. Some, however, will also remember him as an advocate ofsocial justice, speaking out against war, discrimination againstAfrican Americans, and providing support for peace and Islam. Whetheras a prominent member of the sporting community or a fierce advocatefor social change, Muhammad Ali will regardless be considered anauthoritative figure in American and World history.

MuhammadAli as a Social Justice Advocate

MuhammadAli, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, in many ways represented the fearand evils suffered by Black people in American history. Although hewas an Olympic champion, he realized very quickly that someindividuals would still refuse him service because of his skin color.Ali self-professed to be &quotthe Greatest&quot and was recognizedas one of the world’s most beloved and celebrated icons. The mostsuccessful years in his boxing career were between 1964 and 1974where Ali consistently defeated other champions while predicting therounds he would be victorious. He would also poetically describeaspects of his greatness (Chrisman, Cha-Jua, &amp Chude-Sokei,2012). His public persona was brash, loud, and confident. Ali wasmagnetic in his proclamations that he was ‘the greatest’ andattracted plenty of attention due to his sheer showmanship. In fact,during his 50thbirthday celebration, all manner of important black figures of thetime came out to honor him. Such dignitaries included Diana Ross,Sinbad, and Nelson Mandela. Unsurprisingly, some white people such asBilly Crystal and Tony Danza also attended. These figures teased himand expressed their love and idolization for him, thereby showing theuniversal appeal of Ali as a cultural figure. Perhaps his mostnoteworthy contributions to social justice were in his public statusas a Muslim-American, influential figure in the Civil RightsMovement, who was also opposed to the US government in its warsagainst foreign nations.

MuhammadAli was a prominent figure with a significant impact on the Americanpeople, especially when discussing the oppression of AfricanAmericans. Ali was a social activist who fought inside and outsidethe ring, taking a stand against the Vietnam War without fear oflosing his title or reputation. Granted, he lost his title and couldnot box professionally for almost four years. Notwithstanding,Muhammad Ali continued advocacy long after he retired, speaking outagainst the various wars fought in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. Heremained an advocate for peace and personified the virtues of Islamuntil his death.


CassiusClay was born in Kentucky on January 17, 1942. He was the son ofCassius Sr. and Odessa Clay. Later in 1954, at the age of 12, theeventual Ali became interested in learning how to fight andapproached a police officer who was also a boxing coach at aneighboring gym. He gained attention through his boxing career in theearly 1960`s. Despite winning a gold medal at the Rome Olympics, hestill endured discrimination and racism (Reed, 2004). Muhammad Alibecame a controversial figure because he refused to join the Americanarmed forces during the Vietnam War. Similarly, he shocked much ofthe world when announcing his conversion to Islam and taking on thename of Muhammad Ali. His charisma and courage have made Ali one ofthe most recognized and loved people in the world.

MuhammadAli and his Campaign against Social Injustice

Throughthe influence of Malcolm X, Ali expressed his stand on the civilrights movement during his public performances in the 1960s. AlthoughAli was a brutal fighter inside the ring, he promoted justice andpeace nonviolently for everyone outside of it, tempering the twosides of his public persona to accomplish this goal. Ali wasoutspoken in his advocacy for social justice. He utilized his ego toexpress and speak his mind in public instead of conforming to theaccepted second-class status of African Americans (Gorsevski &ampButterworth, 2011). In particular, Ali took a strong stance againstimperialism in the United States and labeled this system as &quotthewhite power structure&quot (Chrisman et al., 2012). Ali became anadvocate of &quotblack pride&quot as he fought against ‘blackoppression` by whites in the United States (Chrisman et al., 2012).Granted, his social and political opinions were ideologically extremeon some occasions. Nevertheless, his campaign for social justice wasinfluenced by the racism exhibited in the Jim Crow South and even theNation of Islam.

TheInfluence of Boxing and Black Nation

Aliutilized sports as one of the only opportunities blacks had to assertthemselves (Saeed, 2002). In this regard, he became a BlackNationalist and repeatedly declared that blacks have to live in‘their own black nation` to achieve pride and fulfillment. Alibecame close friends with Malcolm X, chiefly due to their mutualMuslim faith and their desire to end discrimination against blacks(Roberts &amp Smith, 2016). Malcolm X was Ali`s spiritual mentor inthe latter’s conversion to Islam. Therefore, he became stronglyopposed to integration with white culture and believed that AmericanStates such as Georgia or Alabama should be part of the Black Nation.Ali was focused on fighting against the hypocrisy and injustices of‘white Americans` (Doyle, 2006). However, he also showed patriotismwhen he described the United States of America as the best country inthe world (Saeed, 2002). That being said, he tempered that patriotismwith a sober recognition of the flaws of the U.S. Consequently, Aliused his public platform to discuss the country`s weaknesses. He alsoradicalized his identity as an &quotinternal alien&quot to resistsystemic oppression and institutions like racism and the military(Jones 2015, p. 266).

Ali’sfirst boxing match in 43 months pitted him against Jerry Quarry onOctober 26, 1970. The fight was held in Atlanta, Georgia and wasdubbed as Ali’s “day of judgment” (Smith, 2015, p. 6).Returning to boxing after nearly four years outside the ring, Alidrew incredible publicity and celebrities to the fight, with SportsIllustrated describing his audience as &quotthe most startlingassembly of black power and black money ever assembled&quot (Smith,2015, p. 6). The attention generated by the match proved Ali`s powerand influence as a social justice advocate. The hordes of supportersshowed just how much the public loved him. Arguably, such publicityarose from his objection to the Vietnam War and his subsequentincarceration.

MuhammadAli’s Campaign against the Vietnam War

MuhammadAli`s negative view towards conflict was illustrated when he refusedto join the American armed forces during the Vietnam War. This led tothe case Clay v. United States, in which Ali was compelled to standtrial (Roberts &amp Smith, 2016, p. 304). His conscientiousobjection to the war stemmed from his membership in the Nation ofIslam and racial ideology. In many ways, “this fit the blackradical masculinity that closely coded Ali’s identity, fightingwhite hegemonic masculinity by pointing out their role in socialinjustice and their opposition to it” (Jones, 2015). Aliunsuccessfully tried to maintain his status as a heavyweight championdue to his classification as a defiant black nationalist (Chrisman etal., 2012). Fundamentally, the Nation of Islam shaped hisconscientious objection to fighting ‘people of color’ and ‘Asianbrothers.’

Aliexplained that engaging in war was a contradiction to his strongreligious beliefs. Moreover, he asserted that he had no quarrel withthe Vietnamese people, and hence there was no reason to engage in warwith them. &quotWhy should they ask me to put on a uniform and goten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brownpeople in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville aretreated like dogs and denied simple human rights?&quot he asked(Ali, 2012). By connecting the uselessness of the war with thepresent troubles experienced by African-Americans, Ali managed toboth express his concerns about the Vietnam War while also pointingout the need to focus on social justice and change at home. Hesuggested, &quotMy new job is freedom, justice, and equality forblack folks, to bring them the knowledge of their true selves&quot(Ali, 2012, p.21). Although the Appellate Court found him guilty ofdraft dodging, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimouslyoverturned the decision in 1971.

Ali`sPersistent Support for Islam and Peace

Aliconverted from Christianity to Islam to show his support andsolidarity with his Muslim brothers. Notably, he took on a newidentity and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to MuhammadAli upon joining the Nation of Islam (Reed, 2004). The movement wasalso known as ‘the Black Muslims.` Ali embarked on a study of theMuslim Faith’s doctrines since he believed that white people weremore proficient in their knowledge of Islam. He also felt that whiteswould never allow black people to learn or comprehend Muslim.Consequently, Ali endeavored to educate himself as a way ofundermining the value and authority of the whites.

Aliproclaimed that he believed in peace and Allah but suggested that hewould prefer not to interact with white neighborhoods. Besides, heshowed his support for Islam despite the fact that the country washostile to the Muslim community (Reed, 2004). For instance, the WorldBoxing Association stripped him off his title after he converted toIslam and refused to join the Armed Forces. However, he was pleasedto forego his title and retain a ‘valuable possession of conscienceand peace.’ Having found peace within himself allowed him toperceive war as unjust and immoral. Reed asserts, &quotAli was tornbetween his civil duty and his religious obligation, and his internaldialogue would not allow him to disregard his loyalty to his faith&quot(2004, p.109).


Therecent death of Muhammad Ali has reminded the public of the ways inwhich he shaped American culture. Also, his life course has provideda stellar example of the kind of aggressive passion for civil rightseveryone could nurture. Lighting the Olympic Torch in 1996 was,perhaps, the most important element of Ali’s social justice work.It was a potent symbol of the ways in which he advocated for socialchange and equality while demonstrating an enviable strength ofcharacter. Despite his debilitating condition, he manifested anunrelenting will to fight for life and honor. Ali expressed hisstance on civil rights during his public performances in the 1960s.From his refusal to fight in Vietnam to his conversion to Islam, Alifocused substantially on a decidedly progressive view of socialpolitics. Through his faith and conscience, Muhammad Ali became oneof the most distinguished figures of peace in the Muslim community.

Hisfight inside and outside the ring made him a universally loved andadmired heavyweight champion and fighter for social justice. Aliaspired millions of individuals to believe in themselves andaccomplish things that would be seen as impossible, including me. Ifind him very meaningful as a role model, as he showed me the ways inwhich people could stand by their beliefs even when sufferingconsiderable harm to career and image. He is one of the mostwell-known examples of individuals that adhered to principles ofpacifism, faith, and love despite suffering significant personalhardship.


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