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Who Whitewashed Muhammad Ali?

With the death of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, a new fight is emerging in the massive shadow of his life. In segments of both the Right and Left is a sense that his story has been softened, his image whitewashed, and his legacy turned into a cultural fiction. Ali was a radical. Whether one views that radicalism as virtuous or sinister, there is truth to idea that much of it is being ignored.

At Huffington Post, Maxwell Strachan argues that whitewashing Ali was meant to make him more acceptable to white fans and admirers. As the article puts it: “Throughout U.S. history, white Americans have toned down the life stories of radical people of color so that they can celebrate them as they want them to be, not as they were. It is why we first think of ‘I Have a Dream’ when we hear the name Martin Luther King Jr., and not his opposition to the Vietnam War. Narratives are altered. Complex people simplified. Revolutionary ideas watered down, wrapped and packaged with a bow for mainstream America.”

It is not made clear who is responsible for this in Ali’s case. In looking back through Ali’s life and career, it is also not clear why the boxer’s legacy was altered in this way. It is possible that media outlets and Ali’s business partners might have chosen to water down his radicalism for profit. But his radical ideas about race, religion, and the United States themselves also didn’t always paint him in a very good light.

Race as Promotional Material

Part of what made Ali “The Greatest” was his gift for self-promotion. His willingness to say outlandish things and his poetry while deriding the talents of his opponents was a revelation to 1960s America. In an era when athletes were meant to be humble and do their talking with their talent, Ali wanted more, and he knew how to get it.

Race and religion were central to Ali’s promotion of himself. By changing his name from Cassius Clay, the sobriquet of a ninteteenth-century abolitionist, he was making a political and social statement. In joining the Nation of Islam, a radical Black Muslim movement, he further challenged the acceptable norms of 1960s American society.

None of this is to say that Ali’s beliefs were not sincere. He remained a Muslim his whole life and was a champion for the concept that Islam is a religion of peace. Likewise, his sometimes-controversial attitudes on race were clearly deeply held. But he knew these were hot buttons, and he was quite expert at pushing them, even in terribly unfair and hurtful ways.

Joe ‘Uncle Tom’ Frazier

In 1971, after facing a three-year suspension for refusing to serve in Vietnam, Ali was back to regain his title. In his way was an old friend, the then-current champion Joe Frazier. Frazier had helped Ali during his three-year hiatus with…

 if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, and the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand.


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