On June 4, 2016, Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century passed away in a Phoenix, Arizona hospital. He had been admitted earlier in the week with respiratory problems and after almost three decades of struggle against Parkinson’s disease. He stopped breathing just after midnight on June 4.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, he came to prominence at the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960 when he won the gold medal in the 175 lb. (light heavyweight) category.
His brilliant skill and boxing style was immediately recognized internationally and his successes inside the ring were matched throughout his life with his uncompromising stands against racism and his defence of the right to conscience and against unjust wars of aggression. This won him great acclaim from the world’s peoples outside the ring long after he retired from boxing.
He then won the world heavyweight championship three times. In 1964, shortly after winning the title fight against Sonny Liston, he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, adopted the Muslim faith and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali with Malcolm X. Ali would later state that his break with Malcolm was one of his greatest regrets.
At the height of his boxing career he took a brave stand against the U.S. war of aggression in Vietnam by refusing induction into the US army. Refusing induction orders was a felony in the U.S. and he was criminally charged and stripped of all his boxing titles. His boxing license was suspended and in 1967 he was put on trial and found guilty.
Ali’s courageous stand came right in the midst of the rising anti-war movement in the U.S. and worldwide, and his active opposition to U.S. military aggression in Vietnam and elsewhere was a great contribution to the movement of the people in defence of their rights.
April 29, 1967 press conference where Ali announced that he would not take part in U.S. aggression in Vietnam | AFP
Ali actively fought against the violation of his right to conscience. At one of the public rallies organized in his defence he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home to 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?”
After a four-year battle the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, reversed the conviction. Muhammad Ali not only returned to boxing but continued to speak out against racial oppression in the U.S. and many other human rights and social issues.
When he retired from boxing Ali had an incredible record of 56 wins in 61 bouts. Even though many of his fights will be remembered as the most skillful and exciting boxing exhibitions ever seen, his greatest successes came outside the ring. His uncompromising stands in defence of rights made him one of the most popular and beloved personalities all over the world.
Muhammad Ali earned the deep respect of oppressed people around the world, who saw him as a man of principle who was not afraid of turning his words into deeds and fighting on the side of the people.
Muhammad Ali with Fidel Castro
– In His Own Words, April 1967 –
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.
Muhammad Ali told a press conference in Beirut in March, 1974 at the start of a tour of the Middle East, that ‘the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.’ On a visit to two Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon (pictured), he was quoted by a guerrilla news agency as saying: ‘I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.’ In 1985 he travelled to Israel in an attempt to secure the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners held by the Israeli regime.