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What Muhammad Ali Believed

Muhammad Ali's political life was as frustrating and contradictory as it was principled and selfless.

Some of the most indelible images of Muhammad Ali come from his 1974 trip to the Congo. He was the feted guest of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko  — who renamed the country Zaire in 1971 — for the spectacular “Rumble in the Jungle” title bout with heavyweight champion George Foreman.

The fight exemplified Ali’s boxing smarts. It was there that he debuted his “rope-a-dope” strategy to defeat Foreman in eight rounds. More significantly, however, Ali framed it as a demonstration of black pride: an African government hosted the fight; black pilots flew him there, and his trip amounted to a kind of homecoming for a descendant of African slaves.

Some of America’s and Africa’s top black musical talent — James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibangu, and others — headlined a massive concert to accompany the fight. All the while, Ali reveled in the love and support of ordinary people wherever he went.

But the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from the harmonious picture of black advancement Ali and his media acolytes painted. Instead, the fight highlighted the contradictions of postcolonial politics and racial nationalism.

These tensions defined Ali’s lifelong political engagements — at times principled and progressive, at other times opportunistic and or conservative.

After Ali died on June 3, tributes poured out from all corners of the globe and from across the political spectrum. But many people indignantly denounced would-be eulogists whose beliefs and politics the boxer would have abhorred.

On Twitter, young black people rejected the notion that Ali was racially “transcendent,” arguing white commentators and public figures like Donald Trump were trying to co-opt his legacy. “He was black and proud and not part of your liberal project,” was a common retort.

Others suggested that the fact that even reactionaries felt compelled to claim Ali’s legacy was the ultimate sign of his triumph. For example, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who has been implicated in fomenting communal violence, tweeted that Ali “demonstrated the power of human spirit & determination.”

The truth, however, is that Muhammad Ali’s beliefs were all over the map. He often aligned himself with unlikely projects: US imperialism’s right-wing, conservative, anti-black agenda; Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign; the South African apartheid regime’s diplomatic efforts.

His apparent support also bolstered a myriad of dictatorial regimes (not only Mobutu, but Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, and the Saud family in Saudi Arabia). Yet throughout, Ali maintained his posture as a figure of black pride.

My Name, Not Yours

Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali’s acute experience of American apartheid and later his embrace of the Nation of Islam (NOI) formed his early political beliefs.

The NOI — which emphasized a mix of beliefs including black self-determination, a regimented lifestyle, and the idea that white people are “blue-eyed devils” invented by a mad scientist called Yacub — and its spokesperson Malcolm X had a profound influence on Ali, who soon declared his political independence: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

A day after winning the world heavyweight championship in February 1964, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In the meantime, Malcolm X parted ways with the NOI over leader Elijah Muhammad’s hypocritical behavior and what Malcolm X deemed the limits of their political ideology.

He increasingly espoused mainstream leftist positions on colonial wars and apartheid in South Africa, and threatened to bring the United States before the United Nations because of its political and economic wars on poor and black Americans.

Three months later, Ali and Malcolm X crossed paths in Accra, Ghana. Ali was touring Ghana, Nigeria, and Egypt with Elijah Muhammad’s son, Herbert. Poisoned by the Nation of Islam’s propaganda, Ali literally turned his back on his former idol.

He later regretted the incident, after leaving the NOI himself, calling it “one of the greatest mistakes of my life,” but he would never reconcile with Malcolm X.

Ali’s adherence at the time to the Nation of Islam partly accounted for his 1966 decision to reject the draft and claim conscientious objector status on religious grounds. America’s occupation of Vietnam was a “Christian war,” he charged.

But significantly, he bolstered his objection with a critique of militarism, empire, neocolonialism, and its connection with Jim Crow. He reminded his interlocutors:

Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

This would turn out to be Ali’s most selfless contribution: at the height of his powers, he chose his political principles over his boxing career, facing jail time, the loss of his title, and a ban from boxing that lasted until 1970.

His refusal to fight in Vietnam earned him powerful enemies in the white, mainstream media — for example, the New York Times insisted on referring to him as “Clay” till the end of the 1960s. But it also won him many admirers and inspired a tradition of athletes taking public political stances.

Nobody's Uncle Tom

Most appraisals of Ali’s political life end with this brave, principled opposition to the Vietnam War. But if we present Ali as some kind of perfect political avatar, we obscure the complexity of his political life.

For example, his host for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was far from a progressive third-world leader. For one thing, he was accused of working with Western powers to murder Patrice Lumumba — the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo — in 1961.

The United States, Britain, and erstwhile colonizer Belgium, together with their local allies, opposed Lumumba’s agenda for genuine independence, which included nationalizing the country’s natural resources.

Mobutu, who had been Lumumba’s right-hand man, eventually seized power in 1965. By the time Ali arrived nearly a decade later, he had turned the state treasury and the country’s natural resources into his private property and imprisoned or killed off most dissent.

That Ali said nothing about Mobutu’s despotism may have surprised many, but it was consistent with racial and Cold War politics at the time.

African-American support for movements that espoused Africanist-centered politics was very high during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Mobutu mastered this rhetoric.

His government promoted what he called an authenticité policy: it banned Western aesthetics and culture, instead promoting African music, dress, names, and hairstyles. This was echoed in some African-American cultural practices, especially those associated with the Nation of Islam and Afrocentric movements.

But activists working with African revolutionaries found these developments frustrating. A case in point is the civil war that broke out just months after the Ali-Foreman fight in Angola.

Angola had recently attained its independence from revolutionary Portugal, and Western powers and their surrogates in the region — like apartheid South Africa and Mobutu’s Zaire — were not happy when the left-wing People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) came to power.

The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) — a movement funded by the United States and South Africa — presented itself as more Africanist than MPLA, which had some white and creole leaders.

Many African Americans supported UNITA over MPLA. This is why historian and activist Walter Rodney, in a 1976 speech at Howard University, reminded his audience that “we must of course admit that to declare blackness is a very easy thing to do.”

In Zaire, Ali seems to have made a similar move, unwilling or unable to look beyond the pageantry of racial nationalism.

An aging Ali increasingly chased big paydays sometimes in direct contradiction to his politics: first, Mobutu convinced promoter Don King (a longtime Republican) to bring Ali to Kinshasa, Zaire.

Then, in 1975 Ferdinand Marcos paid Ali and Joe Frazier millions to fight in the “Thrilla in Manila.” Soon after that Ali seriously considered taking on fights in apartheid South Africa, despite appeals from activists to respect a then-nascent cultural boycott. In this case, Ali eventually relented.

A few years later, in 1979, the United States announced its boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter dispatched Ali on an “African diplomatic tour” to lobby leaders to support the boycott, even while continuing its own bloody interventions in Latin America and elsewhere.

Ali was happy to help out. His first stop was Tanzania in East Africa, where the president, Julius Nyerere, refused to see him, accusing Ali of being an American puppet. Ali reacted strongly: “Nobody made me come here and I’m nobody’s Uncle Tom.”

In fact, Ali was never someone else’s dupe. His 1984 support for Ronald Reagan’s reelection is a case in point. Many were shocked at his endorsement, especially considering his support for the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful Democratic bid.

Asked to elaborate on why he liked Reagan, Ali told reporters: “He’s keeping God in schools and that’s enough.”

But these seeming contradictions don’t negate Ali’s earlier commitments, nor do they mark a turning point in his political life. He remained a vocal supporter of the Palestinian people and visited refugee camps in Lebanon. He also lent his celebrity to protest marches in American cities against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

Quiet Solidarity

Ali even eventually became a strong supporter of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It was therefore fitting that he did not end up visiting the country until April 1993 — three years after Nelson Mandela was released, the main opposition movements were legalized, and the African National Congress (ANC) began negotiating a new constitution with their former jailers and torturers.

Mandela told Ali he was his inspiration in prison, “because I thought of his courage and his commitment to his sport.” Ali also visited a gym in Soweto, sparring with some local boxers.

But most significantly, Ali’s trip coincided with Chris Hani’s murder at the hands of white racists. Hani was known for his independence (even risking death) and his demands that the ANC be held accountable for the piecemeal and narrow basis of South Africa’s economic and political transition after apartheid.

When he was alive, Hani was the most popular ANC leader after Mandela, especially among ordinary members and supporters. At his funeral, Mandela called him “one of the greatest revolutionary leaders the country has ever seen.”

Ali insisted on attending Hani’s funeral. He went with little fanfare or media attention and comforted Hani’s children. As his lawyer told the Associated Press at the time: “It had a deep emotional impact on the mourners and the country that Muhammad happened to be there at that moment. It gave them, I think, a level of comfort.”

Whatever his contradictory political instincts, in that moment — as South Africa lost one of its greatest sons — Ali demonstrated quiet solidarity that was sorely needed.

Like many admirers of Ali’s combination of sporting prowess and early activism, I want to hold on to those moments, but in doing so do not want to blank over the contradictions and full sweep of Ali’s confounding politics.