I’ve just finished watching Muhammad Ali’s memorial service speeches and last night I watched a TV documentary ’The Trials of Muhammad Ali’. As with all funeral services, you learn a lot about the person that you wished you had known before – things they had achieved or done, skills they had.
The memorial service reminded me of Princess Diana, another world icon, whose funeral service was also televised worldwide, an amazing reflection of the power that some people have to impact the world.
The service brought tears to my eyes. Ali’s ability to stand for what he thought was right, his willingness to speak out when he saw was inequality, injustice, rights abuse and the madness of war contrasted with the tenderness of his relationships which so many people spoke about. He suffered for his beliefs. Who can believe that today the US is celebrating the life of a Muslim, a conscientious objector…and….
a man who had 4 wives and 9 known children!
And that’s what the service didn’t talk about. He had 7 children with his wives and two children from outside his marriages, living with six women, having affairs. Now if you or I did this, we would be thought of as philanderers, cheats, unreliable and even irresponsible having 9 children. But if you are an icon or a celebrity, apparently it’s OK. (Diana was forgiven for her affair. Nelson Mandela, another icon, had 3 wives.)
What helps is that it seems the children all got on and acted like one big happy family. Perhaps this was just a typical outcome of Ali’s great tenderness and kindness and encouragement of people generally.
Today, everyone loves Ali. But when he became a Muslim, changed his name to the very ‘foreign’ (to a white US society) Muhammad Ali, when he was a conscientious objector, he was pilloried, banned from his boxing livelihood for over 3 years and had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to win his case and avoid jail over being a conscientious objector. While other objectors fled the country to avoid being drafted, Ali faced his protagonists head on and took the pain and punishment.
Watching old footage of him being interviewed by hostile white reporters, watching his blunt, direct responses, often turning questions back on to the interviewer, listening to the ‘average person in the street’ declare their disagreement with his actions reminds me of how tough it was for him to blaze the path he chose.
What started him on his journey of calling the US out on its practices was getting back to the US after winning the Olympic gold medal in the Rome Olympics, being a US hero, but being banned from being served in a diner due to segregation laws. He was strong and rich enough to fight for himself, but, as he said, many people in the US had his problems but were unable to fight or defend themselves.
What can we learn from Ali?
Over time, Ali went from being a US pariah to being a boxing hero, then a black hero and finally a celebrated and loved global icon who lit the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Like Mandela, he showed that things can be changed in a society if people are prepared to speak the truth and take action. He showed that it is possible for people to be friendly and peaceful, regardless of race or religion. He showed that positive support for ordinary people can have marvellous, long lasting effects on those people. He showed that humility, humour and fun can be coupled with greatness.
And he showed that the number of wives, husbands, affairs, children are not important to a society if you make a significant contribution. We are poorer for his passing.