Men of Dignity and Conviction: Remembering Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela

Men of Dignity and Conviction

I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way, but if I have changed even one life for the better, I haven’t lived in vain.
– Muhammad Ali

It’s hard for anyone but a Baby Boomer to remember when Cassius Clay burst onto the boxing scene. For many of the younger generations, they became accustomed to seeing The Greatest in the long twilight as Parkinson’s disease took its toll. In an era that can only be likened to South Africa’s Apartheid, a young man went to the summer Olympics in 1960 and came back from Rome with a gold medal.

My principles are more important than the money or my title.
– Muhammad Ali

In 1960, black travelers still needed the Green Book – a guide to hotels, restaurants, auto repair garages, and other establishments that would serve black customers. Even stars like Duke Ellington, Little Richard, Lena Horne, and a young boxer needed these guides to not only find a hotel or restaurant, but to protect themselves from violence because of their race. Schools were being desegregated against massive resistance, with governors threatening to defund public education, or ordering the National Guard to prevent black students from entering white schools. Martin Luther King was arrested in Atlanta, and Jim Crow was the letter and spirit of the law. Even in the northern states, historic housing covenants kept white neighborhoods and white schools white.

I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.
– Muhammad Ali

Against this backdrop, Cassius Clay converted to Islam, and changed then his name to Muhammad Ali after beating Sonny Liston for the WBC and WBA heavyweight championship titles in 1964. The 1960s were not an easy time for any young man of color, and the opprobrium of the establishment was considerable. Muhammad Ali was not going to fit in the box that the powers that be had fitted him for, he was going to be true to himself and his beliefs.  His refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War cost him heavily. He was arrested, found guilty of evading the draft, convicted, and stripped of his titles, though his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court upon appeal.  At the same time he was also stripped of his New York boxing license though other boxers, equally guilty of other crimes, were not. He would not fight again until 1971.

I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.
– Muhammad Ali

Throughout his life, Muhammad Ali was a man who was moral, ethical, outspoken, and often brash even when he took blowback. Even when the world counted him out he would disagree, often colorfully and in trash-talking rhymes that one could see in the rap and hip-hop performers of today. He came back so many times, and faced fearsome opponents both inside and outside of the ring, chalking up more wins than losses. It is a record of courage and perseverance of which anyone can and should be proud. His is a voice and a face that can and should be associated as much with the struggle for civil rights as it ever was for boxing. He spoke out time and time again, even when it cost him, even when the establishment hounded him, even when he lost – but he always came back.

I shook up the world, I shook up the world.
– Muhammad Ali

It is hard to imagine a man who shook the world harder than The Greatest, but in the pantheon of sticking to your own moral code, and fighting for what is right, Nelson Mandela stands out. He was born in 1918, to a notable and noble Xhosa family who as with many African peoples had seen their land invaded and colonized by white Europeans. Originally born with the name Rolihlahla Mandela, but as was the tradition was given a “Christian” name when he began formal schooling. He was educated, not just by the standards of the time, but by any standard. He attended Healdtown College, and received as he put it, “a British education” which ignored African culture in favor of emphasizing the superiority of British culture, the British Empire, and colonialist government.

The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture.
– Nelson Mandela

This was taught to the extent that young Mandela was expelled from University College at Fort Hare for participating in a student protest. He ran away with his cousin to Johannesburg, where he completed his BA and began studying for this LLB in 1943. He would not complete his law degree until 1989, shortly before being freed from prison. However, it was not his reading of law that brought him to the attention of the government, but his involvement in politics and his role in forming the African National Congress Youth League in 1949, and involvement with multi-racial Defiance campaign protesting the unjust laws that began the imposition of apartheid in 1948 by the National Party. His arrests in 1952 and 1955 resulted in his being made a “restricted person” – but it was his arrest in 1955 and subsequent trial that saw him acquitted of treason in 1961.

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.
– Nelson Mandela

The event that brought Nelson Mandela to prominence was intended to sever him from the public consciousness. In 1963 he was arrested again and sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and other offenses.  Instead it made him a symbol of black resistance to tyranny and injustice that lives to this day. He was incarcerated on Robben Island for eighteen years, contracting tuberculosis, doing hard labor, enduring brutal treatment from the guards. The movement to free him organized and coalesced in 1980, and by 1982 led the South African government to move him to a prison on the mainland and negotiate with him for his release.

I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
– Nelson Mandela

The anti-apartheid movement and movement to free Mandela became all but one. Mandela was offered freedom time and time again, but always with political strings attached, leading him to refuse each “compromise” though it meant he remained in prison. In 1988, he was moved to a minimum security prison, and after the election of F.W. deKlerk, he was released in 1990.  His struggle to end apartheid and end white minority rule. He stated what while he could work for peace, armed struggle would continue until disenfranchised black Africans were allowed to vote.

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
-Nelson Mandela

If George Washington is seen as the father of our country, Nelson Mandela is the father of the modern South Africa as it moves to heal deep wounds and past injustice, and become the nation he envisioned that it could be. He was not a peaceful paragon, but he was steadfast and dedicated man who fought against gross injustice imposed upon the African people.

A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.
– Nelson Mandela

Both Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali were great men who fought against injustice and oppression. Though from different generations and different worlds, they faced adversity without compromising their beliefs or deviating from their moral compass. It takes courage to have convictions, and to stand by them no matter the cost. They shook up the world for the better, and we are richer for their presences, poorer for their loss, and have two tremendous examples to live up to.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
– Nelson Mandela

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