The emotions run high when I think about Muhammad Ali and what he meant to me, to us, as children, growing up during apartheid in South Africa. There were days when it felt like the violence and oppression would never end, that we would not win, that the system was too big, too strong.
We were kids. White supremacy was all around us, on the streets, in Casspirs and Buffels, dressed in army and police uniforms spraying teargas and rubber bullets at us as we walked to school. Nelson Mandela was in prison and his image was banned. We were black and we were being beaten and the system was against us – as it was against millions of others around the world.
During those years, Muhammad Ali was part of what gave us hope, part of what shaped and inspired a psyche of defiance and resistance. As a child schooled in black consciousness and from a Muslim home, here was this black man, a Muslim, with whom I shared a first name, Muhammad, standing up to Empire. Years earlier he had told the most powerful racist establishment on the planet that he would not go and fight their war. And he did that in a way and at a time when it was unimaginable:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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’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. 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. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
There can perhaps be no modern equivalent of that statement, given what the world was like then. Ali’s audacity, courage, defiance and strength became part of our collective consciousness. I was too young to have witnessed his feats in the ring but to me his iconic status was about the fight outside the ring. From the witty verbal jabs to the powerful political statements, Ali used his status to challenge, to provoke, to speak truth to power. And he did that with a mix of charm and humor as well as anger and strength. When I think back to those days growing up, he was a superhero. He inspired, gave us courage, made us laugh, gave us permission to dream and provided hope during some very dark times. In that sense, Ali was indeed the greatest. A champion of the world and a champion of the streets.