When Cassius Clay stood up in Miami, Florida, and said my name is Muhammad Ali, he was in fact the greatest boxer and African patriot. When he stood up in front of a federal courthouse in Houston, Texas, and said “my fight is right here with you,” that was the Ali of the people. That was the greatest. But he, too, had his contradictions.
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali––a free black name.”
These are the words of the great Muhammad Ali following his super upset victory over Sonny Liston in Miami Beach, Florida on February 25, 1964. On that day Ali also declared, “I am the Greatest!”
This great son of Africa passed away on June 3, 2016 following a 30-year bout with a form of Parkinson’s Disease. Ali was 74 years old. Funeral services will be in his birthplace of Louisville, Kentucky on Friday June 10. Let’s look at his life.
In a sense there were two Muhammad Ali’s. One, squarely in the camp of the oppressed and downtrodden of the Earth. The other inside the camp of neocolonialism.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Ali began his boxing career at age 12. As an amateur fighter he compiled a 100 wins, 5 loss record. He won all sorts of Kentucky and national Golden Gloves awards including winning a Gold Medal as a Light Heavyweight in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games at age 19.
By the time 1964 rolls around with 22-year old Muhammad Ali’s stunning victory against the previously considered “unbeatable” Sonny Liston, the peoples of the entire colonized world––from Harlem to Congo to Vietnam––were engaging white imperialism in open revolutionary struggle for control over our own lives and resources.
Ali’s refusal to be a tool in U.S. war of aggression
Ali and the stance he took with the rejection of the slave master’s name to his refusal to be cannon fodder in the U.S. war of aggression against the heroic people of Viet Nam was the embodiment of the Black Revolution of the time.
As he was called for the draft into the U.S. Military in Houston, Texas in 1966, his response was “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
And “You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fighting you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Viet Cong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice.”
What Ali was saying is what was being articulated by the Black Revolutionary Movement as its most coherent leader, Malcolm X, was articulating it. Malcolm was Ali’s mentor and teacher as he was by his side before and after Ali defeated Liston down in Miami.
Much of the political era of the period consolidated in what Ali manifested to the world. The ideological influence of Malcolm X, whom he would later desert, but who defined a new political era of struggle that would capture the imagination of millions of Africans in the U.S. and worldwide, in addition to the colonized and oppressed everywhere.
Malcolm X’s views on Ali
Here is what Malcolm had to say on the militant image and projections of Ali: “The power structure created the image of the American Negro as someone with no confidence, no militancy. They had done this by giving him images of heroes that weren’t militant or confident. Then here comes Cassius, the exact contrast of everything that was representative of the Negro image.
“He said he was the greatest; all odds were against him. He upset the odds makers, he won. He became victorious. He became the champ. They knew that as soon as people started to identify with Cassius and the type of image he was creating, then they would have problems out of these Negroes. They would have Negroes walking around the streets talking about I am the greatest!”
The Mau Mau in Kenya, the National Liberation Front and Vietnamese Workers Party in Vietnam and the colonized throughout the world was the era of national liberation revolution. Mao in China and the Great Cultural Revolution; the anti-colonial struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America were the main trend in a world where white power had gone uncontested for decades.
Malcolm X as the National Spokesman for the Nation of Islam recruited millions to join this great movement that was sweeping the earth. Cassius Marcellus Clay was also swept up in this euphoria of freedom on the horizon. Malcolm was proving concretely on the ground that we could win.
The war of the flea
Malcolm’s organizational children: The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, the Junta of Militant Organizations, etc. also came to fruition in the era of guerrilla warfare, the war of the flea.
Ali translated this into a boxing style of a small, weaker force defeating a larger, more powerful force.
Malcolm often gave the example of the underdog, little nation of Vietnam taking on the big bad U.S. tyrants and bullies. He said they had nothing but a blade and a bowl of rice and the will to win; knowledge of when to hit and run, when to mount and offensive and when to go on defense.
In most of Ali’s professional fights his opponents were larger and stronger, but nonetheless he devastated them.
Thus, Ali’s “Sting like a butterfly, and float like a bee.” It was the war of the flea. So it was true, that with Ali’s never-before-seen skills in a heavyweight boxer and the teachings of Malcolm X, he was indeed the greatest.
Ali had contradictions
But Muhammad Ali, probably the most recognizable human in world history also had contradictions. He could not go all the way with the Black Revolution. While the Nation of Islam made great contributions to our movement, especially it’s “Do for Self” philosophy and toward breaking the myth that the white man was god.
The Spokesmen for the Nation of Islam posed the proposition that the white man was the devil right here on earth. The history of the white man––genocide, lynchings, rapes, murders and slavery provided proof that the white man was indeed the devil and should be struggled against.
The Nation of Islam itself was incapable of going all the way precisely because this ideological perspective represents a class question––it is incapable of carrying out the revolutionary project in the interests of the vast majority of Africans who are of the African working class.
Malcolm could not take the Nation of Islam or Muhammad Ali on his Revolutionary path. Both refused to follow his lead. Both fell victims of the U.S. governments COINTELPRO anti-black revolutionary operation designed to assassinate African leaders and to destroy our organizations that stood for self-determination.
The inability to go all the way to the revolutionary conclusions is what can be expected of the African petty bourgeoisie and their organizational formations. The only class capable of leading the African revolution to the seizure of State power is the African working class, guided by its revolutionary vanguard Party.
The imperialists’ Ali
Muhammad Ali, who actually never fell from favor from the African masses, did however fall from grace with those still devoted to overthrowing U.S. imperialism and fighting for black workers’ power.
We saw Ali in 1978 masterfully destroy George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (Congo) in one of boxing’s most memorable moments. But what is not talked about here is that fight also promoted Mobutu as a credible African leader, when in fact Mobutu was a dictator of the foulest order who was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Africans in Congo and for the overthrow and murder of the great African patriot Patrice Lumumba.
In 1984, after the failed bid by Jesse Jackson to win the Democratic Party nomination, Ali stood firm with Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid although Reagan had a long anti-African history. Not the least of it was the 1983 invasion of Grenada where the legitimate New Jewel Movement government was overthrown, its leaders including Maurice Bishop were killed and imprisoned among much of Reagan’s braggadocio.
Ali even participated in the Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena, California, aboard the Constitution and Bill of Rights Float as one who pontified the freedoms of the United States during its 200-year celebration.
Then Ali let the powers that be send him into Iraq in 1991 to negotiate prisoner of war release after George Bush had invaded and murdered thousands. In addition, he was sent into Afghanistan as a “Messenger of Peace.”
These were all efforts initiated by our colonial bosses to meet their strategic goals––goals which include the total subjection of the non-white peoples of the world.
The Ali of the people
So indeed, when Cassius Clay stood up in Miami, Florida, and said my name is Muhammad Ali, he was in fact the greatest boxer and African patriot.
When he stood up in front of a federal courthouse in Houston, Texas, and said “my fight is right here with you.” That was the Ali of the people. That was the greatest.
But we accept those contributions he did make, and the imperialist will take that from us if they can and make Ali all theirs to serve their own needs. They want Ali to serve their interest as they use Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and now Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill to serve them.
Former U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton is scheduled to deliver the Eulogy at Ali’s Funeral. What a hypocritical love affair the U.S. had with King, Tubman and Ali. If Clinton had the opportunity, he would have locked Ali in prison.
But neither Clinton, the U.S. and none of those, journalists included, who are professing to love Ali now, loved him when he was the voice of the oppressed. In fact, they were all hostile to Ali. They hated him. He was the “uppity nigger.”
He only became their darling after the defeat of the Black Revolution and his capture by our enemies.
Right now as we celebrate the life of Ali, we are still confronted with the defeat of the Black Revolution of the sixties. We are entering a new era of struggle under the leader of the African People’s Socialist Party which is based in the African working class and has the ability to take us all the way to the realization of Black workers’ power.
We are set to reproduce and surpass the era of the sixties characterized by Malcolm, Black power, Black is beautiful and “I am the greatest and the prettiest.”
The African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) represents the National Liberation that Malcolm was talking about––the liberation of the African working class while the NOI’s national liberation meant the liberation of the African petty bourgeoisie.
So let’s take that fighting legacy Ali left us and move on toward the Revolution.
While Clinton and the others can have the Ali they created, the Ali created by the revolution of the oppressed will forever belong to us.
We will win!
* This article previously appeared in The Burning Spear, official organ of The African People’s Socialist Party (APSP).
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
* BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!