Muhammad Ali, who has died, was my first hero. He was beautiful and he was funny and he was a brilliant boxer. His rivalry with George Foreman and Joe Frazier was thrilling. He always remained a hero to me; not for his boxing exploits, but for his far tougher courage, his moral courage, outside the ring.
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942 in Kentucky. Just as his later change of name was significant, so was his original name. The original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a white politician from Kentucky who at great risk to his life had fought to end slavery and had become an important ally to Abraham Lincoln.
Ali was born into a deeply racist society. Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery in 1865, but when Ali was born, in the South only a few blacks could vote and their lives were dominated by segregation. Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat until 1955. The position was better in the North but blacks were unquestionably second class citizens.
In 1964, Ali sensationally beat the fearsome Sonny Liston to become Heavyweight Champion of the world, aged 22. At the same Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were leading their very different campaigns for black rights. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that all blacks in the South would be able to vote in future. A century after the abolition of slavery, finally the road to equality for blacks in the USA became more achievable.
Ali constantly spoke of his pride in being a black man. By his words and deeds and his very presence he played a significant part in changing attitudes both in the white community and the black community.
A defining political statement of Ali’s was his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, which led to him being sentenced to five years in prison.(He never actually went to prison due to appealing but he was not allowed to box for 3 years). Ali explained his refusal with a blunt directness : - "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.”
Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his slave name, soon after he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964. He became a Muslim. Last year, he spoke out against a new nasty dangerous divisive force in US politics after Donald Trump attacked Muslims.
Ali was a great man and a force for good. The world is much poorer without him.