Muhammad Ali was my first idol. Although he retired from boxing in 1981 when I was only 3 years old, he was still the biggest celebrity in my world. I’ll never forget watching him jog through North Philadelphia in the early 1980s, stopping for soul food on Broad Street and getting his haircut at a local barbershop. I was amazed to see an international superstar; the same man I watched on TV commercials and during reruns of Diff’rent Strokes, doing what regular Black people did. This was the biggest part of Ali’s greatness. While we marveled at his ability to slay giants like George Foreman and Joe Frazier, it was his deep humility and boundless love of Black people that made him a legend in my ’hood and ghettoes around the globe.
When I converted to Islam in my teens, my attachment to Ali grew even stronger. Although it was Malcolm X’s writings that brought me to the doorstep of the religion, Ali was my living, breathing example of faith in action. When he came to Atlanta for his famous appearance at the 1996 Summer Olympics, he visited the city’s West End section. As I watched him give out books about Islam and answer questions from non-Muslims, I learned that fame and power did not absolve us from our religious obligations. To the contrary, as the most famous Muslim on the planet, Ali viewed it his duty to exercise faith in ways that created peace, demanded justice and expanded love.
As an adult, I have learned to admire Ali not only for his extraordinary achievements, but also his willingness to accept his shortcomings. He apologized to Frazier in 2001 for the hurtful comments he’d made about him in the past. In his 2004 autobiography, he expressed regret for turning his back on Malcolm X. These moments taught me that by taking responsibility for our mistakes, we are no longer held captive to them.
Although my understanding of Ali has changed over the years, he has never stopped being my imaginary godfather; the mentor I never met; the teacher who never got to hear how much he transformed his student. Muhammad Ali was, and always will be, my superhero.
Marc Lamont Hill is a distinguished professor of African American Studies at Morehouse College, the author of Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, From Ferguson to Flint and Beyond and co-author, with Mumia Abu-Jamal, of The Classroom and the Cell. Follow him on Twitter @marclamonthill.