Muhammad Ali & Malcolm X

Artwork by Dayja Owens

Muhammad Ali, originally named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., was an American professional boxer and activist born on January 17, 1942, and passing away on June 3, 2016. Revered as "the Greatest," Ali is hailed as one of the most influential sports figures of the 20th century and is often celebrated as the greatest heavyweight boxer in history. Holding the Ring magazine heavyweight title from 1964 to 1970, Ali became the undisputed champion from 1974 to 1978 and claimed the WBA and Ring heavyweight titles from 1978 to 1979. Honored as Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated in 1999 and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, Ali's impact transcended the boxing ring.

Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali began his boxing journey at age 12, securing a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He converted to Islam in 1961 and, following a major upset victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, denouncing his birth name as a "slave name." His refusal to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War due to religious beliefs led to legal troubles, including the stripping of his boxing titles, but Ali's conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971. Ali's conscientious objection and advocacy for civil rights made him an icon for the counterculture of the 1960s and a symbol of racial pride for African Americans. Despite a hiatus of nearly four years, Ali returned to the ring, engaging in historic matches against notable opponents like Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and participating in legendary events such as the Thrilla in Manila and The Rumble in the Jungle. Beyond boxing, Ali achieved success as a spoken word artist, actor, writer, and philanthropist, retiring from boxing in 1981 and facing Parkinson's syndrome later in life.

 

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925, and later known as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was a significant American Muslim minister and human rights activist who played a crucial role in the civil rights movement. Serving as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam until 1964, Malcolm X passionately advocated for Black empowerment and the propagation of Islam within the Black community. His posthumously published autobiography, co-authored with Alex Haley in 1965, provided insights into his transformative journey.

Raised in challenging circumstances, Malcolm X faced a troubled youth marked by foster homes and criminal activities, resulting in a prison sentence in 1946. In prison, he embraced the teachings of the Nation of Islam, adopting the name Malcolm X to symbolize his rejection of the "Little" surname associated with White slave masters. Upon parole in 1952, he swiftly rose to prominence within the Nation of Islam, becoming a vocal leader for 12 years. Malcolm X advocated for Black empowerment and separation from White Americans, criticizing the mainstream civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and its emphasis on nonviolence. Subjected to FBI surveillance from the 1950s, Malcolm X underwent a transformative experience during the 1960s, disillusioned with the Nation of Islam and embracing Sunni Islam and the civil rights movement after completing the Hajj to Mecca. Renouncing the Nation of Islam in 1964, he founded the Islamic Muslim Mosque, Inc. (MMI) and the Pan-African Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). His conflict with the Nation of Islam escalated, leading to his assassination on February 21, 1965, in New York City. Despite controversy surrounding his advocacy of racism and violence, Malcolm X is celebrated in African American and Muslim American communities for his commitment to racial justice. Posthumously honored with Malcolm X Day and commemorated in various cities across the U.S., his legacy lives on through streets, schools, and the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center at the site of his assassination.