I had the great honor of presiding over both the funeral prayer and memorial service for Muhammad Ali. I was scheduled to deliver the final speech at both of those events. The funeral prayer was scheduled for an hour and a portion of that time was spend establishing order. There was no time remaining to deliver my prepared remarks. As for the memorial service, it was scheduled for two hours and ended up lasting three and a half. Many of the networks, which were covering the entire service, were pushing for a hard stop and in the process my ten-minute speech was canned.
Part of what I intended to say is the following: “We are not honoring Ali because he was a great boxer. Most experts agree that before his forced hiatus from the sport in 1967, Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time. His combination of size, speed, incomparable reflexes, toughness and unorthodox style made him an incredible fighter. After his return to the ring, it is universally acknowledged that his skills, while still formidable, were greatly diminished. That being the case, fighters such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Willie Pep and others might vie with Ali, in the view of some, for the title of the GOAT –Greatest Of All Time.
“What we honor Ali for is his courage. We honor him because he was willing to stand up at a time when it was not only unpopular, but for an African American it was extremely dangerous, to condemn and refuse to participate in what would come to be seen as an unjust, murderous war in Viet Nam. In the process, Ali lost his livelihood, his title, millions of dollars, and until the tide of public opinion turned, he earned the ire and rebuke of the overwhelming majority of Americans. Yet, he stood by his convictions, and he stood in solidarity with the tired, poor, wretched refuse of distant teeming shores, yearning to breathe free. Eventually, he was vindicated by the highest court in the land.”
Now, another athlete, Colin Kaepernick, has entered into controversy. Certainly, Kaepernick is not the first professional athlete since Ali to engage in a controversial political protest. Athletically, Kaepernick is also no Ali. After a promising start with the 49ers, Kaepernick, even without his controversial refusal to stand for the national anthem, would likely be on his way out of the league, at best hanging on as a journeyman backup. What makes his position so polarizing is that it focuses on the issue of racial injustice in America in the context of a presidential campaign where one candidate has consciously mainstreamed formerly marginalized racist rhetoric, positions and attitudes, while the other is associated with the drafting of policies that helped to catalyze the systematic evisceration of black families and communities.
Furthermore, we have recently witnessed the emergence of a polarizing movement that focuses national attention on the almost daily killing of young black men by law enforcement agents (other communities suffer greatly in this regard, though not nearly as disproportionately). This is the context that makes Kaepernick’s stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” so controversial. In the greater scheme of things, Kaepernick’s protest is minor and will likely garner little media attention after the passing of a few days. The bigger issue is will the nation that recently celebrated the life Muhammad Ali, defend the right of Colin Kaepernick, and many others, to engage in acts of peaceful protest and dissent or will we jingoistically circle the wagons of a false national pride, accelerating our slide into what some refer to as an inverted totalitarianism, one of whose harbingers is the styflying of dissent and an intolerance for any protest against the increasingly portentous failings of a flawed system? As is often the case, time will tell.
Imam Zaid Shakir