He was a very complex man–generally a forthright, honest man with a touch of artful boastfulness that was both audacious and endearing.
And he was known as much for his political and religious convictions as his genius in the boxing ring.
He was born Cassius Clay, but changed his name after converting to Islam.
Many, if not most Black Muslims in the United States are not true Muslims because they downplay, if not dismiss Muhammad as the Last Prophet (Messenger) of God.
But who am I to question Muhammad Ali’s faith?
For all I know, Muhammad Ali’s Muslim faith was true–that he believed in both parts of the core creed of Islam: There is but one God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.
And given this, it is interesting that most Christian Americans are so much more familiar with Muhammad Ali than with Muhammad.
Yet I cannot help but think of the disturbing hypocrisy of it all.
Muhammad Ali was both a Black American and a Muslim American.
Before the Civil Rights Act was passed, and White Americans began to realize that they had so much more in common with Black Americans than they had previously thought, Black Americans had to really prove themselves–they had to prove to White Americans that they truly were equal, in every way, to White Americans.
Most notably I think of Marian Anderson. Marian Anderson was a Black American contralto–with an incomparable singing voice.
She was not a civil rights activist at all–she chose a different way of “breaking the color barrier.” The Daughters of the American Revolution–though quite familiar with Ms. Anderson’s incomparable voice–denied her access to Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., simply because of her race. But First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt got word of this–and let Marian Anderson sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, instead–before thousands of astonished White Americans.
Black Americans–like Marian Anderson–proved themselves in the arts.
And Black Americans–like Cassius Clay–proved themselves in sports.
Yet even among many White Americans today–not necessarily racist, but somewhat bigoted–Blacks are not okay unless they’re sports heroes.
Sometimes this even works in reverse. Many Black Americans–and some White Americans–truly believed that O.J. Simpson could not have possibly committed murder because he was such an ingenious athlete–and astute sports commentator.
And in the 2008 Presidential Election, as many Black American voters turned out as in the 1960 Presidential Election (Kennedy-Nixon). And 97% of these Black Americans voted for Barack Obama–simply because of his race. In fairness, many White Americans voted against Obama, simply because of his race. But racial bias exists in all races–and we must recognize it within ourselves.
Even for racially bigoted Whites, Cassius Clay was okay because he was a sports hero.
In the same way, even for religiously bigoted Christians, Muhammad Ali was okay because he was a sports hero.
There is bigotry in all human beings–there always has been, and there always will be.
And it is essential that we examine our human frailty, and ask ourselves:
If this person’s race is okay because he is a sports hero–how come others of his race are not okay?
And if this person’s religion is okay because he is a sports hero–how come others of his religion are not okay?