Boxing Legend, Cultural Icon Muhammad Ali Died. How Will You Teach His Legacy?

By Madeline Will — June 06, 2016 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Champion boxer and cultural icon Muhammad Ali died on Friday, prompting an opportunity to reflect on his legacy in the classroom.

Ali, a three-time World Heavyweight Champion who was outspoken on racial, religious, and political issues, was 74. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for more than 30 years and died from septic shock.

His death has opened the door to hundreds of thinkpieces, as writers try to define the legacy of a man who was an iconic cultural figure for decades. But how can teachers commemorate the man?

To start with, students could read Ali’s poetry. “The best of Ali’s poems were so clever, so captivating and so funny that they should be taught in schools to acquaint children with the power of imagery and the joy of wordplay,” wrote Tim Sullivan for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Ali’s poems were defined by graphic imagery, straightforward rhymes, and wit. A University of Louisville professor told Sullivan: “He points to how ordinary people can be creative with language.”

For example, before his upset title victory over Sonny Liston in 1964, he composed the following poem (which displayed his characteristic humor and confidence):

Now Liston disappears from view. / The crowd is getting frantic / But our radar stations have picked him up. He's somewhere over the Atlantic. / Who would have thought when they came to the fight / That they'd witness the launching of a human satellite.

And before regaining the title in an upset victory over George Foreman in 1974:

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. / His hand can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. / Now you see me, now you don’t. / George thinks he will, but I know he won’t. / I done wrassled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale. / Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. / I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”

His poetry—and his success as a public speaker and advocate—can also be a source of inspiration for students who might struggle in school: Ali was dyslexic, according to his biographer Jonathan Eig. He struggled with reading, so he memorized everything—including his poetry.

“Ali was not a great student,” Eig told CBS News. “In fact, a lot of teachers at Central High School thought he should not have been given a diploma because he missed so many classes and he took a lot of time off to compete in boxing tournaments. But they decided to give him the diploma anyway. The principal made the argument that they didn’t want to be remembered as the people who flunked the heavyweight champion.”

Ali’s life also encompassed many of the political issues of his times. For all his success in the ring, he was a controversial and outspoken figure throughout his career. He refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War, he was outspoken against racism, and he converted from Christianity to Islam, dropping what he called his “slave” name Cassius Clay in the process. The New York Times has a well-done obituary that goes beyond Ali’s athleticism and features his “agile mind, a buoyant personality, a brash self-confidence and an evolving set of personal convictions.”

Education blogger Larry Ferlazzo (who also blogs at Teacher) compiled a list of tweeted resources that could be helpful for teachers who want to tell their students about Ali’s life. And the site “Teaching Kids News” made some curriculum connections to Muhammad Ali’s life that are worth checking out.

Ali himself had a great answer on how he wanted to be remembered:

As a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could—financially and also in their fight for freedom, justice, and equality. As a man who wouldn’t hurt his people’s dignity by doing anything that would embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”

Teachers, do you have plans on teaching Muhammad Ali’s legacy in your classes? Let us know in the comments.

Image 1: Muhammad Ali embraces a Liberian orphan while residents cheer his arrival at an orphanage for Liberian refugees in San Pedro, Ivory Coast, in 1997. Ali and his entourage came on a goodwill visit to donate food, wheelchairs, and medicine after receiving a letter asking for help from the mission’s organizer.

--David Guttenfelder/AP-File

Image 2 by Flickr user RV1864, licensed under Creative Commons

Related Reading:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.