How Muhammad Ali’s Legacy Has Energised Social Justice Movements Today05 Jun 2020
John Boyega’s powerful and compelling speech at yesterday’s Black Lives Matter protest in London received acclaim from most of Hollywood and the public. It was a moment when a celebrity truly harnessed their influence and platform in a very visual and passionate way, setting an example for others to speak up about the events of the past week. Often as a public figure, against the glare of the spotlight, it can be a complex task deciding whether to be political or not, or share your views on a specific issue when not everyone may be in agreement. Especially as an actor or athlete, you could be risking sponsorships or potential jobs in the future, should you be the slightest bit outspoken.
And in Boyega’s case, as an actor of African/African-Caribbean descent who has most likely faced more obstacles and more profiling in his climb to the top of Hollywood, he is putting everything that he has worked for on the line for this movement.
Pop culture and the media that presides over it have luckily evolved into a state of support when it comes to social movements in the Western world today. But this wasn’t always the case.
Most conversations had about Muhammad Ali base themselves around solely his boxing career, considered one of the greatest sportsmen of the 20th century who was known for his showmanship and forthright manner. It must be said however, that history might not commend Ali for his boxing but for what he stood for and represented. Of course, he was an important figure to the sport, but one must remember that when Muhammad Ali was at one of his highest points in fame, this was also within the context of an America that was segregated and still maintaining the Jim Crow laws. Black Americans were essentially relegated to a second-class citizenship.
Muhammad Ali turned professional during this period of division in the United States, making his amateur debut in 1954 and going onto winning the Light Heavyweight gold at the Summer Olympics in 1960. Three years later he would go on to beat Sonny Liston to become one of the youngest World heavyweight champions in history. Shortly after this, Ali, who formerly went by the name of Cassius Clay, converted to Islam and affiliated himself with the Nation of Islam, then led by individuals such as Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.
Due to his religious beliefs as a conscientious objector, Ali refused to be enrolled into the armed forces and spoke out in opposition to the war in Vietnam. This stance was ultimately met with punishment. Ali was arrested, stripped of his passport, boxing license and boxing titles. This decision was overturned in 1971, but still lost him four years of his boxing career. In fact, when the press first got rumour of Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam, they almost cancelled the 1963 fight with Sonny Liston altogether. Although his opposition to the war and public speeches inspired a momentum in the Civil Rights Movement, Ali was still victim of a campaign of shaming by the media and was even one of the targets of operation COUNTELPRO in which he was monitored and spied on by the FBI.
What Muhammad Ali demonstrated during his career was a unique resilience in maintaining his values in contrary to what the consequences may have been. At a time where there was still widespread support for the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement wasere still being vilified by the media, he stood up for what he believed in and inspired others to do the same. After his boxing career he stayed an avid philanthropist and supported many humanitarian causes. But the most significant aspect of this will always be the fact that during his boxing career, when he had the world at his fingertips in 1963, he didn’t have to undertake such a public role of fighting for various social causes and speaking out against injustice. Yet he did anyway.
Ali’s legacy isn’t so much centered around the sport of boxing but how public figures and celebrities can, and should, speak out in support of social movements. Greatness was redefined as something someone strives to achieve by realising that some things are bigger than trophies or individual accolades. A cultural change was energized by people like Muhammad Ali, and he is the reason why figures like John Boyega can openly and freely add to that momentum without having to pay the full price.