I was just one year old, when one 'Cassuis Clay' won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics and have no memory of the apalling racism and discrimination that had already tarnished his early life and the indignity he faced when being hailed as both a local and international hero, yet refused service at a restaurant in his hometown of Louiseville, Kentucky. due to segregation policies, upon his return.
I had no idea he returned his Olympic gold medal in protest.
By the time he won his first World Heavyweight professional boxing title in 1964, I was five.I remember seeing him on the news and my dad watching the fight on BTV Channel 6!
In 1967, I was eight and well aware of the attrocities and carnage of young lives due to the Vietnam war. It was on the news everynight. I knew that my brothers, both much older than me, faced the possible dreaded "call up", under the Australian government's conscription policies. That was the year I remember the media of the day treating this man, who had changed his name to Muhammed Ali and refused to be conscripted to fight a war against a non existent enemy, like some sort of enemy of the people, in his own right.
I didn't understand that he had converted to Islam, I did understand he didn't want to carry the name of a slave owner and I certainly understood that if he was against the Vietnam war and prepared to go to jail for his "concienscious objection to the Vietnam War", that he was a brave man, one that was a hero in the eyes of my family.
Ali was sentenced to a 3 year ban by the boxing authorities as a result of his conscienscious objection and refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, right at the very prime of his boxing career.
Of course Ali went on to win more titles, but it was not until he struggled up, despite the sad and visiblle physical deteriorioration through the ravages of Parkinson's disease, to proudly light the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Olympics, that I became aware of his inspirational and ongoing role in fighting injustice and discrimination though the civil rights movement and as a humanitarian, for the rest of his life. Little wonder that by then he had moved from " enemy of the state", to a national hero within the USA. Possibly that moment lit the torch, not just to symbolically begin the Atlanta Olympics, but also to ignite Ali's international hero status!
Parallel to this Ali seems to have become a symbol of what it is to be a great Muslim, fighting for peace, tolerance and against war. Clearly he is being heralded as such on this day of his funeral procession and memorial. That his coffin was draped in a sacred flag from Mecca, the highest possible honour for any Muslim to receive is a huge testament to just how much he is revered by so many people and places around the world.
Ali proved an inspiration throughout the 60s and 70s to both Afro Americans and all that supported the struggle against injustice and inequality.He called himself "The Greatest" in an age where racism was alive and well in many places within and beyond the USA, including Australia and such status was all too often challenged, even if sometimes sub consciously for anyone but a "white man"!
Thankfully perceptions have changed and arguably, Ali has been instrumental in facilitating such change!
It is worth noting that Ali came to Australia in 1979, as a guest presenter for the Australian television Logies awards. Local TV personality Bert Newton made the mistake of exclaiming to Ali " I like the boy". Ali came close to knocking him out for his terminology, at once introducing so many Australians to concepts that can diminish the value of an individual via language. Afro American men had long been refered to as "boys" continuing the language of slavery well into the 20th century. Ali championed inclusive and affirming language of equality. He was a role model and leader.
Ali will be remembered for fighting the good fight, to leave the world a more just, humane and equal place than it was for his life long contributions. He was recognised as a UN Ambassador for Peace and arguably one of the most influential and well recognised Muslims and humanitarians of our time!