Glory Bound: Black Athletes in a White America

By David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

8
Victory for Allah Muhammad Ali, the Nation of Islam, and American Society

I envy Muhammad Ali," declared Bill Russell, the basketball great, following a well-publicized meeting between the famous boxer and several other prominent black athletes in Cleveland during the summer of 1967. "He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith."1 Russell's assessment of Ali's religious belief, which came just a month before the fighter's conviction for refusing induction into America's armed forces, was entirely accurate; Ali embraced the Nation of Islam with great fervor and has shown unquestioning devotion to Muslim leadership and complete faith in Allah throughout his adult life. Even after being suspended from the movement during the late 1960s, Ali never wavered from his commitment to Allah or to the religious teachings of Elijah and Wallace Muhammad.2 He willingly submitted to the rigid discipline of a movement designed to control the total behavior of its members.3 In doing so, he rejected many of the essential values of American society to which other middle-class citizens adhered and set himself apart as perhaps the most influential and significant athlete in history.

Ali's conformity to the dictates of Muslim philosophy was a primary reason for his influence on the black community and the broader American society. Muslim doctrine gave him the faith and single-mindedness necessary to combat injustices in American society. Much of the black community's adulation for Ali stemmed from his refusal to seek a middle ground while he simultaneously pursued athletic success and maintained beliefs that were often antithetical to those found in sport. Ali was not universally endorsed by the black community because he rejected Christianity and talked of racial separation. But he satisfied the wishes of the Muslim leadership by being recognized as an autonomous, proud black

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