Jun 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali's greatest legacy

From Muhammad Ali's Twitter page
Muhammad Ali's legacy

Column
By Diana Washington Valdez
The Digie Zone

The "Greatest" came to the El Paso-Juarez border region in 2000. El Paso Times reporter Robert Seltzer, a boxing expert, and I were on the bus that transported Muhammad Ali across the border during a humanitarian visit to Juarez. Here is a link to Robert's story.

Muhammad Ali visits the border

I was sent to accompany Robert in case he needed any help, or if something happened during Ali's visit, such as illness or an accident that would warrant more extensive coverage.

It was amazing to share the same space with a legend, and the visit went without a hitch. Despite his world stature, Ali was a personable and humble human being, and he was warmly received by the two communities on the U.S.-Mexico border.

I remember as a youngster watching Ali on television before the 1964 fight with Sonny Liston, bragging about how he was going to beat him, and also talking big about himself. It was very unusual for a young black man, particularly a sports figure, to speak out so boldly and in such a public manner. In a way, it disturbed the social order of those times. I liked him instantly. 

Watching him carry on then he seemed like the least likely candidate to become what he ultimately became, a champion for civil rights and a global ambassador for peace.
He was entertaining; I could listen to him endlessly.

Young black men, especially then, needed someone like him to come on the scene. Ali, a successful sportsman, used his platform to elevate the self-esteem of many people in the black community. His style communicated ethnic, cultural and religious pride.

It was widely reported that after winning the Olympic Gold Medal for amateur boxing in 1960, Ali was so disgusted with the discrimination that still existed back home that he tossed the medal into a river. Signs that banned blacks from restaurants and other public places did not come down after he placed gold in Rome, Italy, for the American team. It would take court battles, massive protests and outstanding leaders to push for change.

Ali was punished for refusing to enter the military during the Vietnam War, and his conversion to the Nation of Islam and his name change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali were highly controversial. He was famously quoted as saying "Cassius Clay is my slave name." 

Ali also befriended Malcolm X, the charismatic leader of the Nation of Islam who like Ali later converted to Sunni Islam. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Ali also knew, was murdered in 1968. Malcolm X and King had opposing views on how to achieve civil rights, but both wanted black Americans to attain their place in the sun. The Black Panther Party, which launched in 1966, emerged as an organization that sought to empower black Americans, too.

Another associate of Ali's who shared similar aspirations for the black community was James Brown, a breakthrough music artist whose song "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," became an anthem for the cause. This was Ali's world during the 1960s, when he began his amazing athletic career.

Ali became an important spokesman for the black community early on. After Parkinson's dealt him a heavy blow, he fought back with the same courage that had made him a champion in the ring; he became a silent though eloquent statesman for humanitarian causes. It is correct, as some have already done, to characterize him as a transformative figure in American history. Ali was bigger than life, a true legend that commanded respect and awe wherever he went. 

To think that I was on the same bus with him that day, meandering to the toy giveaway for children at a gymnasium in Juarez. I watched Ali greet the youngsters by playfully holding up his fists, his weapons of war and peace. For me, Ali's most important legacy was his ability to arouse minorities of every race and ethnicity to aspire to greatness, each in his or her own way. He will be immensely missed.

Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)

Ali's website