Born January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali rejected his “slave name,” Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., and converted to Islam at age twenty-two. Throughout his life, Ali made controversial choices, including his decision to ally himself with the Nation of Islam, an organization whose ideology was as incendiary in the 1960s as it is today. As Ali himself would admit, “The Greatest” was no saint, but his faith played a guiding role in his life.
In 1967, at the peak of his physical abilities, Ali – the heavyweight champion of the world – committed what many perceived as career suicide. At the height of the Vietnam War, Ali claimed conscientious objector status, refusing to be inducted into the US Army. “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. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
His dissent earned the rage of government officials and the sports community. The media branded him a traitor, and the courts convicted him of draft evasion, stripped him of his titles, and sentenced him to five years in prison. He was fined ten thousand dollars and was banned from boxing for three years.
But Ali’s courage and his commitment to his faith did not go unrecognized. As William Rhoden, a New York Times columnist, wrote, “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”
Ali’s spirituality continued to evolve and grow over the course of his lifetime, and he never shied away from confronting his own contradictions. Several years before his death, he wrote in his memoir, “Truly great people in history never wanted to be great for themselves. All they wanted was the chance to do good for others and be close to God. I’m not perfect. I know that I still have things to work out, and I’m working on them. There are certain things I have done that I am not proud of, especially when they caused pain to others. I ask God for forgiveness.”
Speaking at the boxer’s funeral earlier this year, comedian Billy Crystal defined Ali’s legacy: “He was a tremendous bolt of lightning. … Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night. His intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly: injustice, inequality, poverty – and pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy, and religious freedom for all.”