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A Defiant Muhammad Ali Was Cherished By Black Men


And let's turn our thoughts now to those we've lost. First, tributes are still pouring in for Muhammad Ali. He's remembered these days as an athlete and humanitarian. But as Karen Grigsby Bates reports from our Code Switch team, the memory of an incisive, defiant Ali is being cherished by African American men.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Over the past few days, we've seen image after image of Muhammad Ali - triumphant in the ring, joking on talk shows and shakily lifting the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta games. And that was definitely Ali, but so was this.


MUHAMMAD ALI: I'm saying, you talking about me - about some draft. And all of you white boys are breaking your neck to get to Switzerland and Canada and London. I'm not going to help nobody get something my negroes don't have. If I'm going to die, I'll die now, right here fighting you.

GRIGSBY BATES: This was Ali arguing with white college students in 1967, a time when black Americans were still being denied the vote in some places and where, in many places, perceived disrespect to whites - even students - could still get a black man killed. Ali's unshakable self-confidence was a revelation to many black men given those circumstances, says Kevin Merida, editor-in-chief of the sports and culture website The Undefeated.

KEVIN MERIDA: We had not seen an athlete and a black man be so brash and bold and swaggering and defining identity on his own terms. And that was very important then, and it's still important.

GRIGSBY BATES: Journalist Sunni Khalid agrees. He remembers seeing and hearing Ali when he was a youngster and the boxer was in his prime.

SUNNI KHALID: That affirmation - I'm black and I'm proud. I'm not going to take a slave name. I'm going to embrace new religion and have a new name. I'm going to be defined on my terms and my terms alone. That resonated very, very powerfully, especially among African-Americans.

PENIEL JOSEPH: Muhammad Ali is certainly a cultural and political icon.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's historian Peniel Joseph, director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.

JOSEPH: For black people especially, he becomes the biggest symbol, in a lot of ways, of, really, black-power activism in the late 1960s and a kind of defiant black masculinity.

GRIGSBY BATES: Joseph says Ali never apologized for his beliefs, even when he was penalized for them, as he was when he opted to become an official conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, nor did he soft-pedal his conversion to Islam.

JOSEPH: So Muhammad Ali becomes this person who's unapologetically, you know, at times, unforgivably black, but in a way that young people and African-Americans really, really embrace.

GRIGSBY BATES: Back then, for a public figure at the height of his power to buck the establishment as Ali did was unthinkable, especially when the consequences were so severe. Ali was barred from boxing for three-and-a-half years. His income evaporated. Still, he remained unrepentant about his political stance and his Muslim religion. Sunni Khalid says that was noticed beyond the U.S. borders as people in several parts of the world embraced Ali as a fellow Muslim.

KHALID: Ali could really walk into any African country and many Asian countries, countries in the Middle East, and he would be mobbed immediately. He was like a member of the family.

GRIGSBY BATES: Crowds loved Ali, and he loved them back. Kevin Merida believes that accessibility is part of why Ali is being so deeply mourned now. Today's star black athletes, like all-star athletes, have a retinue of handlers and a roster of jealously guarded endorsements.

ALI: Ali was somebody that would have no problem being at a rec center or a playground, a corner in a difficult neighborhood, at a barbershop. There's the champ.

GRIGSBY BATES: His openness as a person was irresistible. His visibility as a Muslim also had an effect on his admirers in this country. When Ali joined the Nation of Islam, it was considered more of a black nationalist cult than a print of orthodox Islam. But when Ali's patron, Elijah Muhammad, died in 1975, his son, Warith, quickly converted the organization to an orthodox Sunni sect. Ali exposed many black Americans to the religion. Sunni Khalid is one of those.

KHALID: I became a Muslim in 1978. And I've questioned whether I'd be a Muslim today if it were not for Mohammed Ali, if it weren't for Malcolm X and you could also say almost Elijah Muhammad.

GRIGSBY BATES: For many people, including African-Americans, this was a first glimpse of a non-Christian religion that is practiced in much of the world. And that religion's ambassador just happened to have been the world's best known black man, Muhammad Ali. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.