An Honest Tribute to “The Greatest”: Against Whitewashing Muhammad Ali’s Legacy

By Sara Jaffri

On June 3rd, Muhammad Ali passed away. While he was known for being a boxing champion and entertainer, Ali represented so much more.

In the context of the broader struggle against racism, capitalist exploitation and imperialism in the 1960s, Ali was consistently vocal about revolutionary justice and black liberation. He supported Native-American self-determination, the Palestinian struggle and publicly denounced the Israeli occupation, though it was and continues to be very unpopular to do so.

Ali can rightly be remembered as a people’s warrior for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam war, describing America’s draft as “white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from red people”. This was a war in which many of the frontline soldiers were working class black people who were denied dignity on U.S. soil and then sent to kill Vietnamese people on behalf of the white ruling class.

There are people who vilified Ali for taking on a Muslim name, and for resisting the war draft. Regardless of the racist attacks on his character, the money and medals he lost and the repression he experienced as an athlete who was an adamant anti-imperialist, he stuck to his convictions throughout the years. The sacrifices that he as a boxer had to make to stay true to who he was as an activist shows what capitalism and profit is: everything, even sports, fighting, fitness and games are in the service of making big profit and repressing dissent.

I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.

Any challenge to the system becomes punishable by depleting that person’s capacity to make a livelihood. In the case of the 1968 Olympics when 200-m dash gold-medalist John Carlos and bronze-medalist Tommie Smith both raised their fists in a Black Power Salute in Mexico City, they were banned from the Olympic games for their action and received death threats from Americans back home. For Ali, this punishment was done by withholding boxing titles and banning him from boxing. For working black people, any resistance to the system is met with criminalization, incarceration and even death.

In today’s climate of overwhelming Islamophobia, we remember and salute Ali’s publicly unapologetic stance when it came to his religious beliefs. In the 1960s he joined the Nation of Islam and eventually publicly adopted Islam as his religion, a move that irked many establishment members, including journalists, who refused to recognize his Islamic name and identity.

Cassius Clay is a name that white people gave to my slave master. Now that I am free, that I don’t belong anymore to anyone, that I’m not a slave anymore, I gave back their white name, and I chose a beautiful African one.

Muhammad Ali’s political and spiritual evolution was heavily influenced by Malcolm X, who had inspired him to join the Nation of Islam. Ali’s immense pride for his people and the struggle for black liberation developed alongside Malcolm X’s mentorship, however their friendship came to an end when Muhammad Ali refused to accept Malcolm’s departure from the Nation of Islam.

Ali later regretted abandoning his friendship with Malcolm X: “Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life. I wish I’d been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry, that he was right about so many things. But he was killed before I got the chance. He was a visionary ahead of us all.”


Ali’s ongoing dedication to Islam made him the target of Islamophobic verbal attacks both during his life and after his death. Those who expressed a hatred of outspoken black and Muslim people portray Ali as an out-of-control, hot headed, anti-white bigot with fundamentalist religious beliefs.

On the other hand, he is celebrated in the mainstream press and by imperialist figures such as Obama for vaguely defined acts such as advocating for civil rights and standing up for what is right. Martin Luther King’s message was similarly ‘cleansed’ of its focus on class struggle and reduced to one that fits into a broader vision of liberal equality. This type of white washing of the radical and militant elements of an activist’s legacy are common.

We refuse to reduce Ali’s legacy to an uncontroversial whitewashed narrative of athletic success or rights advocacy. We also must demand more of athletes and other public personalities to use their celebrity, and even risk it, like Ali did.

(Photo Credit: Bob Gomel)