None of us had anything against "Smokin" Joe Frazier. In fact, I recall a great amount of respect I had for him, but Ali was our hero and we could not conceive of our superman being defeated back then. I remember our school teacher being forced that day to eventually succumb to our emotions around the loss by providing us space to talk about it. There would have been no way we would have calmed down otherwise.
I was all of eight or nine years old at the time. I often try and gauge the extent of my revolutionary consciousness at that time, growing up in San Francisco, one of the most politically charged regions in the world, during the height of the Black Power movement. My conclusion about what I knew and understood is that I probably didn't have many details, but I did have context. My context was that Muhammad Ali was a member of the Nation of Islam and that he represented a strong and independent African model for self determination. At that age, I knew of the Nation of Islam very well because they were prominent in my neighborhood and community. Everyday after school, my friends and I would gather at the small bakery of brother Rodney Muhammad. Our hope was that he would bless us penniless ghetto children with one of those tasty pastries he had on display or a slice of bean pie. He understood this and would always come through for us, but only after forcing us to sit and listen to "the teachings" for a bit. In my neighborhood, there was no one else like the Nation of Islam. Most of the African men I saw in prominent positions were doing things that were destructive to the community, but not these Africans. They were strong models of discipline and strength and even at a young age, I understood this.
So, although it has been years since Muhammad Ali had been active within the Nation of Islam, it was always impossible for me to see him separate from them. The vision of him talking to the European (White) media during my youth was always one of pride and defiance that was provided courtesy of the beliefs of the Nation. You see, where I came from, hearing him talk about why he refused to go to the Vietnam war made perfect sense. I recall my father, who himself was drafted, repeating Ali's refrain that "the military is no place for a Black man." My father was so militant in saying this that he once told me that if I ever joined the military, he would disown me. Of course, as I grew and my political consciousness grew with me, the idea of my ever doing something like that became a longstanding joke between my father and I up until his death, but only because the message Ali presented resonated with us 100%.
With Ali's passing, the capitalist system will go into overdrive to advance its usual propaganda. It will present a tale of a man who had charisma and courage who decided to take a stand. They will suggest that this stand was an individual choice inspired by individual convictions. They will do their best to ignore the fact that Ali's stance made him public enemy number one in this country during that time. They will whitewash and individualize this history because the job of the capitalist system is to convince you that the only alternative ever available to you is something, anything, within the realm of the capitalist system. Never anything, that falls outside the parameters of that system and/or its values. And individualism is the value that propels the capitalist system. So, you must be reminded that you are a mere mortal. Not an icon like someone like Muhammad Ali. His act was one of individual courage and conviction that you cannot match so since you are not him, you cannot ever achieve the type of personal conviction that he achieved. That is what capitalism will say. What we will say is as brave as Muhammad Ali was. As courageous. As witty and determined, he was only able to be all of that because he had the support of the Nation of Islam. We will even go farther and say were it not for his membership within the Nation, he more than likely would have never taken such a courageous stand in the first place. Acknowledging this takes nothing away from Ali because at the end of the day, he had to make the decision and stand by it, but placing his courageous stand within the context of his organizational affiliation is important because that suggests, properly, that his stand was not an individual act. It was part and parcel of the struggle of our people for liberation and that he was simply playing his role as a part of that liberation struggle.
In spite of the fact many people will misunderstand what I'm saying and there will undoubtedly be the usual onslaught of ignorant hate responses, my point is the Nation of Islam had a long standing history of standing up against Africans joining the U.S. military and fighting for U.S. capitalism. In 1943, long time Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad went to prison for five years for refusing to fight in World War II. El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, or Malcolm X, the person primarily responsible for bringing Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam, used his wit to outsmart the draft board to avoid being drafted into the military in the 40s. Malcolm was Muhammad's mentor and spiritual advisor and Elijah Muhammad later became Muhammad Ali's spiritual father. The Nation had a clear position against being drafted and strongly encouraged Ali to submit to that position. So, it is impossible to recognize Ali's strong stance without acknowledging his membership within the Nation of Islam and their role in leading him to take the position he took against the war.
Its like Kwame Ture was always fond of saying. "Organization decides everything!" And our people who took courageous stances were always guided by organization. W.E.B. DuBois was guided by organization within the Niagara Movement, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Communist Party, and other organizations to take his bold stance against U.S. imperialism during the 40s. Marcus Garvey was guided by the principles of the Universal Negro Improvement Association to take on the seemingly unthinkable challenge of "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad" back in the 1920s. Kwame Ture, Dada Mukassa Ricks, Ruby Doris Robinson, James Foreman, and others within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee were inspired by their courageous and dangerous work in Mississippi and Alabama to shout "Black Power" on a hot Mississippi night 50 years. A chant that reverberated across the globe. Kwame Nkrumah was inspired by our people to build the Convention People's Party in Ghana. Sekou Ture to build the Democratic Party of Guinea in Guinea. Amilcar Cabral to build the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, inspired by all of this, launched the Black Panther Party for Self Defense with four other brothers in Huey's mother's backyard in West Oakland in October of 1966. Today, African activists all over the globe are inspired to stand up against police terrorism and injustice. None of this happens in a vacuum. Its all apart of our legacy of struggle. Our legacy of organization., This is true because organization does indeed resolve everything. So, when you think of Muhammad Ali and his contributions the question for me has to be what makes him stand out. Why was I, and millions of other African and other youth inspired so much by him? Why not George Foreman or Ken Norton? Why not Ernie Shavers or Larry Holmes? All of them were outstanding heavy weight peers of Muhammad Ali yet I've heard many of them respond to his death by proclaiming themselves that he was head and shoulders above them. Why? Well, my humble response is that Muhammad was the greatest, but he was prepared to be that by the forces of our liberation struggle. And when he took the ring and most importantly, when he took his political stand, he was not alone. He was standing with an organization who's principles guided him every step of the way. Now some of you who are very skilled at perpetuating negativity, will certainly bring up issues related to his connection to the Nation of Islam. Did Elijah Muhammad's son Herbert steal Ali's money? Is that why he fought as long as he did (until he was 40) thus setting up his fate with Parkinsons? Did the Nation see Ali simply as a cash cow to further their image? I cannot answer those questions, nor would I want to. Regardless of the problems, there is no denying that despite whatever problems may have existed, the Nation of Islam took a bold stance against the Vietnam War and as a result, Muhammad Ali had the context to take his equally bold stance. That's an ill refutable fact and a strong statement in support of Kwame Ture's statement on organization. So, it is impossible to remember Ali's stance without acknowledging that because it is organization that will produce our future contributors to our liberation. So, you may not have Ali's boxing skills. You don't need to have those skills to make a contribution. You can create and/or strengthen our organizations so that they are ready to accept, support, guide, and influence our youth to take similar stances for justice, freedom, and forward progress. This reality makes you as important as anyone else at any time in our history.