Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson: Three black men that changed the world
— 13th June 2016
By Tope Adeboboye
THE world stood still on Saturday, June 3, as news reverberated across the globe that Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest sporting heroes whose feet ever trod the earth, had passed on.
It was the end of an era for a black man revered as the greatest boxer of all times.
As the death knell tolled for Ali, and people of all races paid their respects to the deceased, many agreed that it was the end of a great epoch. “Never again will the world have such a man as Muhammad Ali,” a 64-year-old Japanese woman wailed while mourning the late icon.
Ali’s death drew the curtains on a long span, when a triumvirate of three black men dominated the world and changed the course of history like never before with their talents, skills and character. They were the three Ms – Mandela, Muhammad and Michael.
While Ali dazed and dazzled the world with his exploits in the ring, Michael Jackson bewildered and bamboozled humanity with his incredible music and stage presence. And in the minds of hundreds of millions of people the world over, Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, would remain one of the greatest human leaders that ever lived.
At his birth on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, his parents, Cassius and Odessa Clay named their first child Cassius Marcellus Clay. But as he grew older, rebellion welled up in his mind. He loathed his name, which he saw as the relics of the slave era. He was christened after a 19th century white plantation owner who became an abolitionist and freed his slaves. But to Clay Jnr, that wasn’t something to be proud of. He eventually became a Muslim and gave himself another name – Muhammad Ali.
But right from the onset, the young Cassius Clay had long told the world that he was going to change the course of history. Growing up in Kentucky where racism was a way of life, he refused to be defeated by the circumstances of his birth as a member of an endangered species. He craved greatness and found boxing as a vehicle that would ferry him to that desired destination. He told himself he was the best. When he won his first bout as a young teenager, he told his family to be on the lookout, confidently intoning that he would be boxing champion. And he worked extra hard to achieve his dreams. He was a man that invented his own mythology and connected it to bigger matters.
A biographer wrote that the young Clay took the fear instilled by the history of his people in America and transmuted it into something that fear itself was afraid of.
Since he already knew where he was headed, Cassius spent more of his time in the gym. By the time he was 18, he had fought 108 bouts, winning 100. He had also garnered two national Golden Gloves championships. In 1960, he boxed for the U.S. Olympics team in Rome and came back home with a gold medal. He later said in The Greatest, the 1977 film about himself that was directed by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman, that he threw the award into the Ohio River after realizing that some restaurants still refused him service in Louisville because he was black. He said: “On my side of the veil, everything was black. I knew that there were two Louisvilles and two Americas.”
Ali had once bragged: “By the end of 1963, I will be the youngest champion in history.” In 1964, Ali, still Cassius Clay, became world heavyweight champion after beating Sonny Liston. He was just 22.
With the fame and influence brought upon him by his new status, the champ turned that prominence into a political capital by aligning himself with the most feared Black Nationalist movement of the time. Then he resisted service in the Vietnam War. Why would he do that? “I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man,” he told an author, David Remnick years later. “I had to show that to the world.”
But America and the boxing authorities were not ready for all that. In 1967, Ali was stripped of all claims to his title. The US government also tried to send him to jail.
As a boxer, Ali did things the way no other boxer ever did. He showed little respect to his opponents and taunted them. That worked for him. The world saw a different boxer altogether. Soon, he began predicting at what rounds he would give his opponent a technical knock-out. And the world was awed by how he was changing the norms and redefining boxing.
But besides fighting for fame and fortune, Ali was also fighting for a cause – to show the world that a black man could be the greatest.
Former heavyweight champion George Foreman, said of Ali: “He found something to fight for, other than money and championship belts. And when a person finds something like that, you can hardly beat them.”
When he was to fight Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion in 1964, not too many people believed in Ali. But by then, he had met Malcolm X, and he had converted to Islam, though his name was still Cassius Clay. He was also close to Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the The Nation of Islam. After knocking out the champion, Ali addressed the shocked, mostly white reporters who never gave him a chance: “Eat your words,” he told them. “I told you and you and you! I’m king of the world! You must all bow to me! I shook up the world! I am the prettiest thing that ever lived.”
Shortly after the fight, the new champion declared that he was no longer Cassius Clay but Cassius X. Elijah Muhammad soon after changed the champion’s name to Muhammad Ali.
During the Vietnam War, Ali refused to be drafted to the military. He told a reporter: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They ain’t never called me nigger.”
For three years, Ali was banished from boxing. In 1968, he served a 10-day term in the Miami Dade County Jail, for driving without a valid licence. In prison, he served food to death row inmates. In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled that Ali could fight again.
He returned to the ring against Joe Frazier, Ali was defeated. He had earlier been knocked to the ground decisively by Frazier in the course of the fight. “But by rebounding in that same instant, Ali redeemed his meaning as a hero: He was the black man who would not stay down, no matter what,” a reporter wrote.
Ali got his world title back in 1974 when he defeated George Foreman in the fight called Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire, now Congo.
Years later, Foreman said of the fight. “Probably the best punch of the night was never landed. Muhammad Ali, as I was going down, stumbling, trying to hold myself, he saw me stumbling. Ordinarily you finish a fighter off; I would have. He got ready to throw the right hand, and he didn’t do it. That’s what made him, in my mind, the greatest fighter I ever fought.”
Ali had more fights after that, before retiring in 1981. Since then till he breathed his last, Ali was punished by Parkinson’s disease. But he also lived through it for many years. He would forever remain the authentic black hero, the greatest boxer that ever lived.
Many across the world regard the late anti-apartheid hero and former South African President, Nelson Rolhilahla Mandela, as the greatest black man of all times. And they have a point. How many people in the world would elect to be shackled in dingy cells on isolated prison facilities for 27 years rather than abandon the struggle to emancipate his people?
After his release from the infamous jailhouse, Victor Verster Prison where he had spent the last months of his many years in prison on February 11, 1990, Mandela totally divested his mind and consciousness of all hate and malice, pronouncing forgiveness for his traducers. He became a father figure to all South Africans, whether black, white and coloured. Even after his death, everyone in the world celebrates the iconic world figure who became the symbol of doggedness and determination. Because of Mandela, many now believe that impossibility is nothing.
The Xhosa born to the Thembu Royal Family on July 18, 1918 trained as a lawyer. In Johannesburg where he lived, he became involved in anti-colonial politics and struggles. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) and was a founding member of its Youth League.
Although he initially preached and was committed to non-violent protests, he became a co-founder of the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. The group led a sabotage campaign against the government. In 1962, he was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state and sentenced to life imprisonment.
After his release from jail, Mandela became a global hero. The world stood still as he walked out of jail, as tears cascaded down the faces of millions of men and women across the globe. He was the symbol of freedom and hope.
After his release, it became indisputable that he would soon become the country’s president. The world wanted him as president, and South Africans also needed a figure like him. He achieved that seemingly impossible feat in 1994. A decade earlier, even the most incurable optimist would have laughed off the suggestion.
Many had feared that Mandela’s time as South African president would bring vengeance, and might lead to civil war. But he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, preaching peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. He worked hard to make all South Africans see themselves as one, in spite of colour and race.
Even before his death in 2013 at 95, the entire world had accepted him as one of the greatest men that ever lived. He was a man that inspired hope and possibility throughout the world.
At his passing, the great Rev Jesse Jackson wrote: “Mandela was a transformational figure. To say he was a “historical figure” would not give him his full due. Some people move through history as being the “first this or that” – just another figure in a lineage of persons. To be a transformer is to plan, to have the vision to chart the course, the skills to execute. To be transformational is to have the courage of one’s convictions, to sacrifice, to risk life and limb, to lay it all on the line. “Historical figures” will reference Nelson Mandela.”
At a point, Michael Jackson was the most popular person in the world. Generally accepted as the undisputable King of Pop, Jackson was born in the United States in 1958, the eighth of ten children in a working class African-American family that lived in a crowded two-bedroom house on Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana.
In 1964, Jackson’s life as an artiste evolved when he and his brother Marlon joined the Jackson Brothers, a band formed by their father, Joe. In 1972, Michael started his solo career.
Over the years, Michael Jackson mesmerised the world with his incredible talents as a singer, song writer, dancer and entertainer. His album, ‘Off the Wall,” which had songs like “Off the Wall,” “She’s Out of My Life”, and the chart-topping singles “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You” reached number three on the Billboard 200 and eventually sold over 20 million copies worldwide. He also started acting in films.
His songs, “Thriller” and “Bad” became global anthems. Millions of youths all over the world spent hours rehearsing his moves and moonwalk. He reshaped the pop culture in ways that are hardly fathomable. In all parts of the world, there is hardly a musician after Michael Jackson that wasn’t influenced by the iconic musician.
In spite of his troubles and controversies, Michael Jackson has remained an enduring phenomenon even after his death on June 25, 2009 of cardiac arrest induced by propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication.
Michael Jackson was one of the very few artists to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. He was also the first and only dancer from pop and rock music inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Dance Hall of Fame. Jackson got multiple Guinness World Records. He had 13 Grammy Awards, the Grammy Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Michael Jackson, also called the Wacko Jacko had 26 American Music Awards more than any other artist. He was named “Artist of the Century” and “Artist of the 1980s.” During his career, he had 13 number-one singles in the United States.
Michael Jackson will forever remain in the chronicles as the greatest artistes of all times. Like Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela, Michael Jackson remains one of the greatest men the world will ever know