#BlackLivesMatter: Muhammad Ali had it right 50 years ago

Renowned British television show host and columnist Michael Parkinson interviewed Muhammad Ali on October 17, 1971.

“Can I ask you when you were first aware, when you were a child, of the differences between black and white?”

This is what heavyweight boxing’s greatest ever champion said nearly 50 years ago:

“I do a lot of reading, a lot of studying. I ask questions, I’ll go out, travel these countries, I’ll watch how their people live, and I learn. And I always asked my mother, I said, ‘Momma, how come is everything white?’ I said, ‘Why is Jesus white with blond hair and blue eyes? Why is the Lord’s supper all white men? Angels are white, the Pope, Mary’. I said, ‘Mother, when we die, do we go to Heaven?’"

"She said, ‘Naturally we go to Heaven.’ I said, ‘Well, what happened to all the black angels?’

“They took the pictures,” said my mom.

"I said, ‘Oh, I know. If the white folks is in heaven too, then the black angels were in the kitchen, preparing the milk and honey.’

"She said, ‘Listen, you quit saying that, boy.’

“I was always curious. And I always wondered why I had to die to go to heaven.

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"Why couldn’t I have pretty cars and good money and nice homes now? Why do I have to wait till I die to get milk and honey?”

“So anyway, I was always curious. I always wondered why Tarzan is the King of the Jungle in Africa, he was white.

"I saw this white man swinging around Africa with a diaper on, hollering. And all of the Africans, he’s beating them up and breaking the lion’s jaw, and here’s Tarzan, talking to the animals.

“And the Africans have been there for centuries and they can’t talk to the animals. Only Tarzan can talk to the animals. I always wondered why.

"And Miss America was always white. All the beautiful brown women in America, beautiful sun tans, beautiful shapes, all types of complexions, but she always was white.

"And Miss World was always white, and Miss Universe was always white.

"And then they got some stuff called White House cigars, White Swan soap, King White soap, White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax, everything was white.

“And the angel fruit cake was the white cake and the devil food cake was the chocolate cake.

"I said, ‘Momma, why is everything white?’ I always wondered. And the President lived in the White House. And Mary had a little lamb with feet as white as snow, and Snow White, and everything was white.

"Santa Claus was white and everything bad was black. The little ugly duckling was the black duck, and the black cat was the bad luck. And if I threaten you, I’m going to blackmail you.

"I said, ‘Momma, why don’t they call it ‘whitemail’? They lie too.’ I was always curious. And then this is when I knew something was wrong."

Nearly 50 years later and everything is still wrong, which is why every sporting code has a responsibility to create awareness about black lives and that #BlackLivesMatter. It is why sporting codes must constantly challenge the members and players within their respective codes when it comes to prejudice, much of it engrained.

There is white bias in commentary all the time, which has to be highlighted and countered. For centuries, the narrative has been white because it has been told by whites.

Those whites, whose first defence is to scream #AllLivesMatter, miss the point that ‘All Lives’ have never mattered, not in society and not in sporting environments across the world, which is why there has always been this white bias and acceptance that white is right.

In a South African sporting context, do white players and coaches actually realise what they are saying every time they applaud a black selection as being a ‘merit’ selection? I never hear black players saying they are comfortable that the white players chosen are there on merit.

Those condemning #BlackLivesMatter statements in sport are claiming that it politicises sport. What nonsense. Sport has always been politicised and #BlackLivesMatter isn’t about politics but about freedom and equality.

Formula One’s world champion Lewis Hamilton will race in a black Mercedes to make a statement to the world that #BlackLivesMatter. Black soccer players like Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have been prominent and outspoken in challenging life’s status quo when it comes to race and equality. Every voice, when multiplied, becomes an unbreakable collective. It is the way it must be.

#BlackLivesMatter is not a project, a weekly protest or something that is in vogue. It is a reality and sport, as a global attraction, has the platform to never excuse or tolerate prejudice against black lives.

The taunts, however subtle and seemingly silent, can never again be dismissed as meaningless because of ignorance or blamed on history.

In a South African sporting context, by way of just one example, our best rugby player is black, our best cricketer is black, our best soccer player is black and most of our best athletes are black.

But they shouldn’t have to be the best to sit as an equal at any table. They should just have to be, to be at any table. It is called equality.

#BlackLivesMatter social awareness and acceptance is heightened in South Africa because of imagery like Siya Kolisi leading the Springboks to World Cup glory. It is emphasised every time Caster Semenya wins or Kagiso Rabada takes a wicket or Percy Tau scores a goal. But it can’t be a case of an occasion, a picture or a feel-good moment. #BlackLivesMatter has to be lived every day, in our sporting arenas and in our society.

I am not black and I don’t know what it feels like to suffer prejudice because of my skin colour, but when I listen to the Ali interview of 49 years ago, I know that in 2020 something is still seriously wrong and that #BlackLivesMatter protests have globally exposed sport’s failure to deal with racism.

The talking can never stop and once the protests have softened, the actions of everyone in sport must harden to ensure that our future generations can celebrate black lives mattering, instead of having to protest the obvious 50 years from now.


Independent on Saturday

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