Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Muhammad Ali: 'I Am America'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Muhammad Ali: 'I Am America'

Article excerpt

In 2016, the image of Muhammad Ali isn't the same as it was for most Americans 50 years ago. And that says something good about US progress on race relations and religious tolerance.

In the 1960s Mr. Ali was a disturbing and sometimes frightening spectacle to Americans, especially white Americans. He was an African-American man who was brash and loud; he bragged and said outrageous things; he was a showman who knew controversy would draw attention to his career.

Born in racially segregated Louisville, Ky., with the given name Cassius Clay, he became an Olympic and professional world champion boxer, earning sobriquets such as "The Louisville Lip," "Gaseous Clay," and "The Mouth That Roared."

Ali, who died June 3, also became a Muslim (and changed his name to Muhammad Ali) at a time when few Americans knew much of anything about that religion.

Perhaps his most controversial stand was as a conscientious objector, refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. But he didn't flee to Canada; he stood up for what he believed. When asked about the government's decision to prosecute him as a draft dodger, he said: "They did what they thought was right, and I did what I thought was right."

Ali was convicted, stripped of his championship title, and wasn't able to fight for several years. But in 1971 the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor, overturning his conviction.

Ali helped expand the definition of an American.

"I am America," he once said. "I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me."

He added:

"Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it, and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name - it means beloved of God...."

In the 1960s US policy saw Vietnam as a strategic line in the sand drawn to blunt the expansion of Communism. But Ali viewed the war from a different, entirely personal and human perspective:

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America," he said. …

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