Ali's legacy outlives him, but must be considered in full

Illustration by Mark Smith

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 27 Muhammad Ali Issue. Subscribe today!

THERE IS, EVEN in the sadness of his death, little reason to think about Muhammad Ali in the gauzy past tense, to remember him through the lens of pre-color-film footage, except to beam at those hands, marvel at the foot speed, linger on the unblemished supremacy of his youth with all its beauty and foreshadowing.

Otherwise, we need only rise each morning to see him, for Ali feels very much present today as he was during his time. Too many contemporary parallels exist to look backward.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., Ali was once one of the most hated men in America, and like MLK, he would decades later be co-opted by many of the very people who hated him (though a young Ali would be as despised today as he was in the 1960s).

It is the lonely walk of the original, of the dissenter, and it knows no era. He was hated by white America for his unsparing criticism of its obvious, enduring racism, a conversation no more welcome today than it was in 1963. He was hated by blacks and whites alike for challenging the military, for questioning the necessity, morality and inherent racism of war, and in response the American government used its full weight to try to destroy him. He was hated for challenging Christianity as a Muslim in America, yet in death he is mourned as if yesterday's struggle has been long resolved and defiance is no longer necessary.

When recast, Ali is so often dipped in the notion that he "transcended" race, which is pure and unadulterated nonsense. There was nothing for Ali to transcend racially. To him, blackness was no obstacle but central to his identity. His loyalty to being black made him both reviled by whites and luminescent to the black people desperate for his presence, for the African-American admission fee to acceptance and fame has always been the erasure of their color, to abandon it lest they be seen as threatening or difficult, angry or ungrateful. The white ticket buyers and image makers must be comfortable, and the black price for their comfort is reducing the core of oneself or risking the inevitable brand-threatening mainstream rage, or worse: being accused of playing the dreaded "race card," as if humiliation were a game easily turned into advantage with the right strategy. Creating distance from race is the key to mainstream black advancement; the pathway to future acceptance is unattainable without that surrender. Ali rejected this fantasy. He did not transcend race. He took his blackness with him.

Said Ali: "Money means nothing to me nor boxing when it comes to the freedom of your people. So everything I'm doing, if it means hitchhike tomorrow, if it means being raggedy, if it means look for a job, I'll be happy because I can go to bed, my conscience is clear and I didn't sell out or trade my people just because I could be rich in Hollywood."

So much of him lives today, including his darkest side. His worst moments were in his racial cruelty toward rival Joe Frazier. He was quicker mentally, better with words than Frazier, and whether for promotion or mental advantage, he used his better looks and lighter skin to exploit the racial stereotypes that saddle black men everywhere. He knew the implications of calling another black man a "gorilla," and he did it anyway.

What Ali did transcend was the conventions of modern celebrity by remaining a human. He could love the black and the brown around the world and, through the force of his humanity, bend the historical resistance to him over the final 40 years of his life. He could be rich and still be one of the poor. He knew the price for his beliefs, the price of not abandoning his people for fame or money, and was still willing to pay it in full.

Most of America will remember him safely, by separating Ali from its current self, allowing it to be magnanimous and him to be unthreatening. It will admire his religious conviction without recognizing our collective hostility toward Muslims. It will honor his courage, yet discourage us from questioning, as he did, the wars we fight, the government that spies on us or the fact that we forget our poor. It will celebrate his defiance while defiance is precisely what our increasingly intolerant culture is going out of its way to crush.

There is no reason to look backward, for Ali lives presently in the air we breathe. What is past is prologue.