It is easy in an age when civil rights are a virtual fashion accessory for a celebrity to champion equality, but far less so when doing so might mean the end of a good career. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942, in Louisville Kentucky, and as we all know, he became one of the most recognizable names in professional sport. His most high profile protest was his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army, as a consequence of his opposition to the Vietnam War. For this he was handed down a three-year ban by the boxing authorities, and a five-year prison sentence, which he successfully appealed.
This incident gives us all a clear insight into Ali’s moral position, but his activities on behalf of the organized Civil Rights Movement in the United States are perhaps less well known. In 1960, having just won the Olympic boxing gold, Cassius Clay, as he was known then, was refused entry into a whites-only diner in his hometown of Louisville. He claimed then to have thrown his Olympic medal into the river. Two years later, he joined the black civil rights organization the ‘Nation of Islam’, converting to Islam and changing his ‘slave name’ to his adopted name Muhammad Ali.
This was an extremely potent gesture that generated no small amount of controversy, but Ali was by then a globally recognized figure, and the symbolism of what he did was there for all to see. The Nation of Islam, however, and its controversial leader Elijah Muhammad, was not endorsed by the mainstream black leadership of the time, and it was not welcome on the main stage. Despite this, Muhammad Ali remained a friend and fellow activist to both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. At a rally in Louisville Kentucky, Ali appeared on stage with Doctor King, proclaiming: ‘In your struggle for freedom, justice and equality, I am with you.’
In 1984, three years after retiring from professional sport, Ali revealed that he was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, and he turned his attention to full-time philanthropy. He either founded or was active in numerous charitable foundations, and in 1998 he was appointed a United Nations Ambassador of Peace.
‘Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements.’ Ali once remarked. ‘I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.’