KENTUCKY – At a time when Black athletes were sidelined, Muhammad Ali stood as a role model who never wavered, despite nearly going bankrupt and facing the wrath of a good portion of the country.
“America didn’t think black Americans had any voice whatsoever,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the famous NBA black Muslim basketballer, told the AP on Tuesday, Voice of America reported.
“We had no political muscle. No legal means to help the brother. But we let him know that we were behind him and eventually he won his case.”
Abdul-Jabbar was recalling the time when Ali formally refused to be inducted in the US armed forces and similarly when he announced converting to Islam after he won the boxing heavyweight title in 1964.
Amid the hardships, Ali lost the heavyweight title and three years of what would have been the prime of his career during his forced exile from the ring.
“Ali sacrificed a lot to take that position. That was a great sacrifice on his part. That was the height of his career in his mid-20s, the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Gene Kilroy, Ali’s business manager, said “He believed 1 million percent. He never wavered because he believed Allah was on his side. People didn’t believe him, but he believed.”
Harry Edwards, the civil rights activist and sociology professor emeritus at University of California, shared a similar opinion.
“It’s a testament to their commitment, their courage, their intellect, their understanding of the issues, and their potential role in rectifying some of these challenges that you have people like them in those positions who are willing to pay that price,” he said.
Ali wanted little more than to be the heavyweight champion, and to be free to practice his religion.
“I am going to die a Muslim,” he said the day before. “They don’t think I’m serious. I will show them I am.”
The boxing champion managed to put words together that perfectly expressed the views of many blacks, who made up a disproportionate percentage of draftees during the war.
He never stopped advocating for his religion up until the time he died at the age of 74, his voice long since muted by the effects of Parkinson’s.
“He never had one regret,” Kilroy said. “He was convinced that there was a power above us that takes care of everything. And for Muhammad that was good enough.”