Illinois celebrates ‘Muhammad Ali Day’ as boxer’s legacy continues

(RNS) – In addition to Martin Luther King Day, residents of the state of Illinois will also celebrate the legacy of boxer Muhammad Ali for the first time on Monday (January 17). The statewide holiday honoring America’s most famous American Muslim comes about five years after Ali’s death at the age of 74 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“As a diverse state with residents from different backgrounds and religious traditions, it was essential for Illinois to recognize the contributions of one of America’s most influential social justice leaders and to establish the first-ever Muhammad Ali Day,” said Maaria Mozaffa, director of policy and advocacy for the Muslim Civic Coalition of Illinois, which advocated for the designation of the day.

The measure to call it Muhammad Ali Day was passed unanimously by the Illinois House and Senate last year and was signed by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker on August 19. The chosen date, Ali’s birthday, falls this year on the occasion of Martin Luther. King’s Day. During the period when the two men were active civil rights leaders in the 1960s, Ali and King often disagreed publicly on political issues. Yet, behind closed doors, the men would have been close friends.

The commemoration of the first Muhammad Ali Day will include speeches by civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson; Illinois Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton; Maryum Ali, one of the former champion’s daughters; as well as personalities from the local community. The commemoration of what would have been the former champion’s 80th birthday will be held virtually due to COVID-19.

“In establishing this memorial holiday as part of our American Muslim Contributions and History Act, we remind everyone that the American champion is both a devout Muslim and American patriot,” Mozaffa said.

As a fighter, Muhammad Ali was all over the ring with a style he described as “floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee”. Today, the champion’s legacy goes far beyond the squared circle of the boxing ring. Five years after his death, Ali remains a ubiquitous figure in sports and pop culture, from Netflix to grocery stores.

Malcolm X, left, and Muhammad Ali in New York, March 1, 1964. (AP Photo/Jack Kanthal)

Last year, Ali was the subject of the documentary “Blood Brothers: Malcolm X & Muhammad Ali” based on the book of the same name, which chronicled the tumultuous relationship between the two men. Meanwhile, Gatorade launched a limited edition Ali-branded sports recovery drink product line. Yet some fear that with increased commercialization, Ali’s impact and meaning in life will be diminished. Efforts like the Muhammad Ali Day celebration in Illinois serve to keep his legacy alive.

“It is crucial that we remember that the social justice leaders we celebrate today stood alone throughout their history, demonstrating courage and conviction in standing up for their beliefs without broad support,” Mozaffa said.

The designation of Muhammad Ali Day is also an acknowledgment of the close ties Muhammad Ali had with the Prairie State. Ali lived in Illinois for several years in the 1960s and 1970s, where the Nation of Islam, of which he was a member, was largely based. Ali’s ties to the state continue to resonate today. Muhammad Ali’s Illinois-born grandson, Nico Ali Walsh, became a professional boxer last year. Like his grandfather, Nico Ali Walsh is a devout Muslim who peppers post-fight talks with words from the Quran and sports an Arabic tattoo on his right bicep. He launched his professional boxing career last year wearing a pair of boxing shorts once worn by his famous grandfather in the ring.


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In 2019, an 81-acre property in Illinois once owned by the boxer was sold to the Turken Foundation, a New York-based charitable foundation with ties to Turkey. The foundation reportedly intends to turn the site into a leadership retreat and museum commemorating the boxer’s life. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan commissioned the foundation to maintain the property at the request of two of Ali’s daughters. Erdoğan, himself a former semi-professional footballer, has long been inspired by Ali’s story. In 2016, the Turkish leader announced his willingness to attend Ali’s funeral in Louisville, Ky., if allowed to speak. Ali’s family refused to let Erdoğan speak, as they did not want to politicize their father’s death. The Illinois estate once belonged to one of mobster Al Capone’s lieutenants.


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Photo by Nelson Ndongala/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Photo by Nelson Ndongala/Unsplash/Creative Commons

The Louisville, Kentucky son continues to inspire athletes not just in America but around the world. French football star Paul Pogba, who like Ali has converted to Islam, praised the boxer in an interview with British media last fall for “speaking the truth when it was hard to say, at a time when it was difficult for black people”. .”

Just last month, the Scottish tennis star Andy Murray, who battled possible career-ending surgery, cited Ali as an inspiration for his dogged drive to get back to the top of the sport. In the United States, NBA star Kyrie Irving, a recent convert to Islam, sparked controversy when he compared his opposition to taking the COVID-19 vaccine to Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the war of Vietnam.

“With Islamophobia on the rise in our country, we needed to remind people how much the American champion stood for as a proud African-American Muslim,” Mozaffa said.