A Study Of The Social And Race/ethnicity Inequalities In The Life Of Muhammad Ali

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This is a study of the Social and Race/Ethnicity inequalities in the life of Muhammad Ali and how he overcame them. Muhammed Ali is one of the greatest boxers of all time. His early struggles in life prepared him to become a strong willed and determined young man to a thoughtful and inspirational example to young and old in a way that crossed all borders and prejudices that were common place in America at the time. He became a global voice and his accomplishments out of the ring are as significant as in the ring.

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He was born January 17th 1942 as Cassius Clay to a poor family in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time it was difficult for black people to get a good job because of the still prevalent racism. His father worked as a sign painter and his mother sometimes worked as a cleaner. Money was tight and often the family went without basic necessities. His father Cassius Clay Sr. was a principled man and preached the virtues of honesty and hard work to his son from a young age and stopped him getting in with the wrong crowd which would’ve been only too easy in the tough crime filled neighbourhood he grew up in. His father followed the belief he was the head and family breadwinner. His family structure follows Parson’s model. The father fulfilled the fatherly role where the mother generally handled the family. The father handled the finances and made the family decisions for the good of the household. The mother provided the emotional support and traditional housewife duties. When money got tight she worked part time as a cleaner.

His father loved singing and dancing and had once harboured ambitions of becoming a singer. He stressed to his the son of having a dream and always striving to fulfil that dream. He also told his son the history of the black man and the injustices of slavery. This prepared and hardened the young Cassius early in his life. It is apparent from his early childhood he was born into an underprivileged ethnic group which was socially considered inferior to the ruling classes. His parents were not afforded the same opportunities as the White people because of the racism that still remained from the days of slavery. Despite this his father had his own ideals in the belief hard work will get you rewarded. Karl Marx would’ve seen this as a class divide where the ruling class was forcing a lesser class into doing work which it felt was beneath them. His fathers ideas could be seen as consciousness where he had ambitions that he was not the lowly figure that others saw him. He held the belief him, his family and black people in general through hard work could attain better.

Muhammad Ali first took up boxing at age 12, after another kid stole his bike. He reported the theft to a policeman named Joe Martin, who gave boxing lessons in a local youth centre. Martin invited him to try boxing and was impressed by his raw talent. Martin began to feature him on his local television show called ‘Tomorrow’s Champions’ and he began working out at Louisville’s Columbia Gym. An African American trainer named Fred Stoner taught Ali the science of boxing. Among the many things Ali learned was how to move with the grace and ease of a dancer. Although his schoolwork suffered, Ali devoted all of his time to boxing and improved steadily. According to Emile Durkheim in his theory of social integration society has a major influence on individuals and the early lessons from his father on the merits of hard work for the betterment of his life kept Ali focused and disciplined. His father had learnt the tougher lesson and prepared his son.

As a teenager Ali won the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and Golden Gloves championships. At the age of eighteen he competed in the 1960 Olympic games held in Rome, Italy, winning the gold medal in the light heavyweight division. This led to a contract with a group of millionaires called the Louisville Sponsors Group. It was the biggest contract ever signed by a professional boxer. Ali worked his way through a series of professional wins, using a style that combined great technique and punching power. Both the attention and his skill as a fighter paid off. In February 1964, when he was only twenty-two years old, he fought and defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

In 1961 inspired by Muslim spokesman Malcolm X he converted to Islam and changed his name to Cassius X disowning the ‘slave name given to him by his white masters.’ This was at a time when the struggle for civil rights was at a peak and the Muslims had emerged as a controversial (causing disputes) but important force in the African American community. He became more and more involved with the Black Muslim group ‘The Nation of Islam’ and its leader Elijah Muhammad. After years of facing racism and social injustices in his childhood. Ali perhaps saw this as a class consciousness and revolution to fulfil the need for collective political action to bring about social change for his people.

Although Karl Marx’s theories were written for the working classes they are equally applicable to the social classes (or under classes) being discussed here.

Elijah Muhammad (1897–1975) gave him the name Muhammad Ali, which in Arabic means ‘beloved of Allah.’ As he became more learned in Islam he realised the beliefs Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam conflicted with the teachings of the Koran and its Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad Ali has said when he went to pilgrimage and saw Muslims of all colours embracing each other as equal brothers in the eyes of Allah he could feel the angels washing away the racism in his heart. This is a perfect example of C. Wright Mills of resolving conflict where once Ali gained knowledge it changed his social outlook on life. When he came back to America and tried tell his Nation brothers many turned away in disgust at the thought of embracing the evil white Devils. Years of mistreatment and slavery had left its mark.

He was described as having the ability to ‘float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee”. Ali used the media to predict his victories and make fun of his opponents. This made him popular and grew his following. He loved giving his opponents nicknames.

Some of the famous ones were ‘Big Ugly Bear’ for Sonny Liston and ‘Gorilla’ for Joe Frazier. He used to constantly talk to his opponents in the ring. In his famous rope a dope tactic against one of the hardest hitters in the game George Foreman where he rested on the ropes and let his opponent hit him until he got tired he just smiled at Foreman and said ‘Is that the best you got? Hit me harder. You hit like a girl.’ Ali conserved his energy and beat him after taking his best shots. This totally demoralised Foreman for years to come. He not only beat Foreman physically he beat him psychologically as well.

While Muhammad Ali’s boxing skills were incredible, he’s also known for being a free thinker. While many other people fled to other countries to avoid the draft to fight in Vietnam, Ali decided to publicly denounce it. He refused to be drafted into the army, and as a result, was jailed for 3 years in the prime of his boxing career. His resistance and protest of the war, despite the repercussions, showed the world how strong Ali’s spirit was and inspired many of all creeds and colour. He voice now resonated with more than just the blacks. He was the voice of the masses standing up to tyranny and oppression. One could say Ali had ‘evolved socially’.

In Vietnam Muhammad Ali said: ‘I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.’

Muhammed Ali will always be known for his never say die attitude, funny remarks, and amazing boxing ability. He created a legacy that will live on forever. Everyone can learn something from his quotes. He had supreme confidence in his ability and his words both inspire and entertain.


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16 December 2021

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