Commentary: Muhammad Ali – a credit to his race

Commentary: Muhammad Ali – a credit to his race
June 09
09:30 2016

Bill Turner

Guest Columnist

I have been blessed to watch and gain awareness from the light of Muhammad Ali from the time it was a blinding flash, a sunny beam of hope, to the long stretch during which time it flickered and shook, and then, last week, when it was extinguished.  Much more than a spirited butterfly flitted away, taking with him his companion stinging bumble bee, but it’s like the last black man standing left the room, taking a certain light with him. Muhammad Ali left us, as we expected, but he also left a lot of room.

I wish I could express my feelings –and those of countless other blacks my age — about what the passing of Muhammad Ali means deep down inside; and do so in the way that only he could talk, in the way only he did his thing as an unbridled black man during a span of time what that is now a collective memory.  For many of us, Muhammad Ali was Black Identity and Black Manhood in the flesh and he reflected in his actions deep convictions and upright conscientious opposition to racial injustice, all now little more than abstractions, except for, of course, racial injustice. This week as Ali is exalted and glorified around the world, and as his quirky quotes are recycled and photos of his magnificently pretty face and dazzlingly manly body are blasted all over the place through social media – making him known to the youngsters who are just fresh from the death of Prince – I only wish that they could fathom what it really meant for a black man – in 1967 – to denounce the American military establishment and embrace what was then, and even now, considered by some, to be a foreign religion.  And, not only that, Ali courageously joined hands, not with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but directly with the then much despised Nation of Islam and Malcolm X.  That Ali “transcended race” will likely become a clichéd expression this week. Ali’s hand-picked eulogists – former President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal and journalist Bryant Gumble — will probably go to great lengths not to offend the sensibilities of those who never did like it when Ali hugged black history, glorified black culture and defended the powerless black public that he said “raised, swayed and delivered” him to the world. Since Ali’s body gave in to Parkinson’s Disease three decades ago, his uninhibited expression of blackness has been sacrificed in the ring of political correctness and to the rope-a-dope speechifying of those who wish to think we live in a post-racial America.

I hope — from the perspective of a 70 year-old black man — that someone will dare say in Louisville during this week of tributes to The Champ what used to be said all the time when I was young about any black person like Muhammad Ali: that he was a “credit to his race.” That said would challenge today’s highly visible black athletes who can’t, as we used to say, “hold Ali’s jock strap,” those who now do little more than sell sneakers and cell phones and Gator Ade.

I wish that the young ones today could see back through the lens of time – when The Champ was surrounded in 1967 in Cleveland, Ohio by some of the top black sportsmen in the NBA (Bill Russell) and the NFL (Jim Brown) – when hardly any black celebrities hawked consumer products. But, I won’t lose any sleep waiting for that to be said and explained.

Credit Ali when he was at his peak –and at his lowest, when the powerful interests got together to extinguish his flame –for agitating for a powerful and positive image of Black Identity and Black Manhood, for modeling what a principled black man who opposed racial injustice thinks and sounds like, and is willing to fight, to pay the price for his beliefs, with a smile on his face and love in his heart.

As-Salaam-Alaikum, Brother Muhammad Ali, Peace be unto you. Thanks for your light that will never be extinguished. You left the room bright with hope, and you left a lot of room for us to grow and we will, inshallah, God willing.

Dr. Bill Turner is a noted educator, writer and thinker who called Winston-Salem home for many years. Reach him at

For more coverage of Ali’s passing, click here

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