Muhammad Ali stepped into history precisely when Black people were making incredible history. We were rising up fighting oppression with a determination that baffled the tyrants of Jim Crow. In the spring of 1963, a thousand young children in Birmingham, Alabama confronted dogs, water hoses, and billy clubs as they marched into jail for freedom.
In August of that year, the nation witnessed the historic March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. sounded the trumpet pledging neither rest nor tranquility until the bright day of justice emerged. Less than a month later in Birmingham, four young girls were bombed to pieces as they attended Sunday school. King prepared to journey to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize because he symbolized the mighty struggle battling racism.
Twenty two year old Cassius Clay stepped into the vortex of this groundbreaking movement with a power, grace and a loud, rhyming, mouth not commonplace in sports. He defeated Sonny Listen in the south in February of 1964 for the heavyweight championship. His mesmerizing style, radicalism, magnificent skills, courage and unapologetic blackness caught fire because he embodied the fight burning in young Blacks mad with racism and being thought of as inferior. We were angry with all forces standing in our way to liberation, including many in our parents’ generation because they absorbed the blows of racism too meekly.
Most white people could not stand this loud mouth Clay who showed no fear and a willingness to knock them out with fist and poetry. As a fifteen year old high schooler, I witnessed older Blacks castigating Clay because his loud mouth and braggadocios manner disturbed them. They cheered that Clay would be knocked on his ass so that the proper type Black could hold the illustrious position of heavyweight champion. But Clay ignited the souls of us young people because we were the children of the movement and we wanted to confront and defeat racism. We wanted to be free and respected and we wanted the world to know it.
The beautiful warrior, who became Muhammad Ali, joined the ranks of King, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer as possessing an uncompromising courage and determination to be free.
Now the “Louisville Lip” belongs to the ages. Already the agents of oppression are whitewashing the champion who shook up the world even before his body is entombed. But we who were fired up by his beauty, grace, power and courage will never forget the real Ali who came to us in our youth of discontent. Future generation of freedom lovers must never forget this militant giant because we will forever stand on his shoulders as we seek justice.