Two of the most iconic American figures of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks are synonymous with their anti establishment actions. On one hand there was Muhammad Ali who rose to prominence in the boxing world upon attaining the heavy weight title at the age of 22 but gained notoriety when he refused the Vietnam draft in 1967, on the other was Rosa Parks, who inadvertently started the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 when she refused to vacate her seat on the bus for a white man, as per the law at the time.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali known for his size and speed quickly became the heavy weight champion of the world in 1964. His fame rose not only to his skill in the ring with his deft footwork to dazzle his opponents but also his playful and trickster persona in and out of the ring as well as his seemingly endless supply of colourful phrases. “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” But it was his actions out of the ring which garnered his notoriety. His conversion to Islam and joining the Nation of Islam in 1964 with its connotations of black militancy did not to much for his career. This was further by his refusal of the Vietnam draft in 1967 on religious grounds in that Islam forbade killing of any form. He objected for this reason instead of asking for exemption on the grounds of his sporting success. While the mass media vilified him, he gained many fans and much admiration for his stance against the perceived injustices of the war. He risked everything to stand up for what he believed in and was subsequently stripped of his titles and faced five years imprisonment.
This is where we can draw parallels with Rosa Parks, although while Ali’s objections in fighting the government were mainly on religious grounds, Rosa Parks were more social and political as she resolved to fight segregation. Born Rosa McCauley on February 4 1913 in Tuskegee Alabama, she was a longtime civil rights activist. She was the volunteer secretary of her local chapter of the NAACP and was involved in the drive to get the black community out voting. While she was not the first women to refuse to move of her seat, it was her case the the NAACP decided to use to challenge the segregation laws of the US. She was subsequently arrested and jailed, serving as a spearhead for the movement which began with the boycott of the Montgomery bus service. She too like Muhammad Ali was vilified and received numerous death threats for her stand against injustice, forcing her and her family to move north.
Their actions in the face of great opposition propelled these two figures to the forefront of American Iconography for many years to come and resigned them to the history books as some of Americas greats.
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Both Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali are significant icons in the African-American civil rights movement. Both Park and Ali broke the law in order to challenge inequalities prevalent in American society. Each of their actions is a legacy that shows how significant an act of defiance can be. Rosa Parks was an African-American civil rights activist who began her journey in the freedom movement when she refused to forfeit her seat to a white passenger on board a Montgomery Alabama bus in 1955. While she worked alone, her actions were orchestrated by a wider organisation known as the NAACP. Once she was arrested, the NAACP sprung into action and organised a mass boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The boycott lasted 381 days and included 42,000 participants. By the end of it, black residents of the area were able to ride the bus as equals. Parks, though courageous in her actions, was a passive resister who wanted to invoke change. Her image as a peaceful yet strong woman meant she was an appealing candidate for the public to sympathise with.
Muhammed Ali was an entirely different figure. He was known in the public eye as a strong, young successful boxing star who had won the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1964. Ali broke the law by refusing to be conscripted into the US army during the Vietnam War on the grounds of his religion of Islam, being a conscientious objector. Refusing to accept this as a legitimate excuse, the government arrested Ali and took away his both his titles and boxing licence. Ali, also being an African-American had grown up with the experiences of facing racial segregation and abuse. In contrast to Rosa Parks, Ali’s resistance was primarily an issue of religion however his status as a proud black man who was anti-establishment inspired other black Americans to question the norms. As the Civil Rights movement begun to gather momentum and the War was starting to come up against criticism from the public, Ali became a spokesperson for black rights and the growing counterculture of the time. Another difference between Ali and Park was that that Ali was working alone in his act of defiance while Parks was actually supported amongst the black community in her area. Both Parks and Ali were eventually successful in overturning their arrests, which meant they were catapulted from negative criminals to positive American icons. Both Parks and Ali were revolutionary in their actions as they challenged the status quo of the time.
The image of Rosa parks is one that reflects her passive yet poignant action. The image of Muhammad Ali as a dominant fighter reflects his powerful impression on American society.
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These two above photographs initially do not appear to have much in common. The first is a striking, triumphant image of a young athlete during a memorable moment in his career. As Muhammad Ali boldly celebrates other the fallen Sonny Liston, a new era of boxing history was ushered in. The other image has a reserved tone, lacking obvious drama or significance without proper context. Simply an African-American woman sharing a bus with a white man. Although the depiction of Rosa Parks is starkly contrasted with that of Ali, these iconic figures have much in common. This is mainly in regard to contributions to African-American culture, but also to American history as a whole.
It is still debated who the pound-for-pound “Great of All Time” really is, but Muhammad Ali makes a strong case. Although Sugar Ray Robinson dazzled with his flawless technique and power, Ali brought unconventional footwork and speed to the heavyweight division. More important to history than the brilliant technical contributions he made to boxing, was the impact he had on black athletics. Compared to early black boxing champions, Ali possessed otherworldly confidence and charisma. The first black World Champion, Jack Johnson had encountered much opposition during his tenure for the colour of his skin. Unlike Johnson, Ali embraced the colour of his skin. Goading Joe Frazier by calling him an “Uncle Tom” clearly shows that Ali considered himself to be independent from white influence. Indeed, his staunch political views showed this stubborn and proud character. Speaking out against the American involvement in Vietnam garnered harsh criticism for the boxer and his refusal to join the armed forces resulted in the stripping of his title and boxing licences. At the time Ali was viewed by many as a traitor. However, following the disastrous course of the war he became an iconic anti-war figure. His reign also imparted a new legacy for black athletes. Theatrics and charisma were a key element of his appeal and we can see the impact this had on music, comedy and sports for African-Americans.
In the second image, Rosa Parks is seated in the first desegregated bus in Montgomery. She may look reserved compared to Ali, but the tenacity and defiance she displayed in the face of racism was just as important to black history as Ali’s wars with Foreman and Frazier were. The Montgomery bus boycott had a significant impact on the Civil Rights Movement and Parks interacted with Martin Luther King Jr., the most iconic advocate of racial equality. Rosa Parks might not have possessed Ali’s stinging jab, but she still dealt powerful blows to racial segregation in the United States and to this day remains a symbol of conviction in the face of adversity. Both figures were arrested for beliefs that are now generally accepted, but at the time they were very controversial. This displays how they paved the way for race relations that still affect American society today.
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Muhammad Ali is an icon in the world of sport, as he is regarded as one of (if not the) greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. However, despite Rosa Parks not being an athlete, both Ali and Parks broke the law in order to highlight injustice.
Ali broke the law when he refused to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. It was apparent that he didn’t want to fight what he viewed as a white man’s war, as he was quoted as saying ‘no Vietcong ever called me nigger.’ As a result, his heavyweight championship title was taken away from him, and his license to box in the United States was revoked for three years. During the 1960s, Muhammad Ali was demonized by white America as unpatriotic. Along with this, Ali had previously changed his name from Cassius Clay and had converted to Islam from Christianity. Ali had defined himself with a distinct black identity.
Parks broke the law when, in 1955, she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama. The incident provoked the famous bus boycott in Montgomery, which lasted for over a year. The African American community rallied behind Parks, and carpooled or cycled instead of taking the buses. African American taxi drivers even resorted to charging passengers only 10 cents, the same price of a bus fare, to help the cause.
Both Ali and Parks are also similar because, whilst they were both initially demonized for their actions, America soon adopted them as icons for positive change. Rosa Parks was arrested for her actions in Montgomery, but in 1956 segregated buses were deemed unconstitutional. What had been legal the year before was now seen as unjust, and Parks was the icon of this change. And Ali became a symbol as sentiment against US involvement in Vietnam gained momentum in the 1970s. Ali, who had initially described himself as a conscientious objector, was now an icon for the anti-war movement that Americans were starting to embrace. Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali, who had technically been criminals, were later established as American icons.
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There are a few select figures In American history that have become icons for people of all backgrounds, all races and all nationalities. Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks are two such examples. Along with Martin Luther King Jr. they emerged during a period of difficulty for African Americans but their resilience and bravery shone through despite this and as a result they have become icons and inspirations for millions.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Muhammad Ali has come to define for the modern era not only the sport of boxing, but the spirit of sport in general. Everyone knows his name, his image, his personality and even his sayings (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”). He is widely hailed as “The Greatest” and in April 1998 when GQ magazine were naming their athlete of the century, only his picture was printed on the cover. For one of the most identifiable individuals on the planet his name was not required, “no other athlete, and likely no other public figure, more symbolised his time than Muhammad Ali.” (American Icons eds. Dennis Hall, Susan G. Hall, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1 Jan 2006) Since winning the world heavyweight championship at the age of 22 in 1967, Ali quickly became a legend in boxing, achieving many more titles and defeating every top heavyweight in his era. He was clearly an athlete at the top of his game but it was his personality outside the ring which helped his popularity surge. He engaged in pre-fight theatrics with his opponents, throwing punches with his words in order to throw them off course and make them lose focus. He also didn’t shy away from speaking on political issues, he used fame to voice his opinion on black equality and he publicly condemned the Vietnam War. As a result he was seen as an inspiration by countless black Americans.
While a young Cassius Clay had just taken his first steps into the boxing world, Rosa Parks was creating headlines around the globe. On 1st December 1955 her refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and her subsequent arrest prompted the Montgomery bus boycott and became one of the first symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks’ story is an incredibly well-known one, and one not just known by African Americans. Though not on the worldwide level of fame as Muhammad Ali, she is a highly prominent figure in American history and whilst he has been labelled “The Greatest”, Parks has become branded as “The First Lady of Civil Rights”. She changed the course of history through one, brave peaceful act and as a result encouraged others to do the same. She is an icon for social activism, and like Ali, she provides an appeal for all generations. As a pair, Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks are extremely important examples of African American accomplishment during the twentieth century.
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The most obvious similarity between the two icons is that they both stood up again racism and achieved a lot for the rights of African-Americans during the American Civil Rights era. However, they both did these in different ways and so there are certain factors of these icons that differ. Rosa Parks was a well-known activist who broke segregation laws in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. This resulted in Parks being arrested, jailed and fined. Her arrested sparked a civil rights movement throughout America, and a bus boycott that lasted 381 days ensued. Upon being asked why she had not given up her seat she explained that, ‘the real reason of my not standing up was I felt that I had a right to be treated as any other passenger. We had endured that kind of treatment for too long’. Her campaign for civil rights was not violent and she was seen as a passive, courageous woman despite her rebellious actions. As a result of her brave decision Parks lost her job, was harassed and threatened.
This is something her and Muhammad Ali have in common; when he refused to register for the draft to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title and endured a forced layoff from the ring for three years. Before his controversial actions, he had made a decision that shocked America as he announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Several newspapers refused to acknowledge his name change, still referring to him as Cassius Clay (the name he was given at birth). ‘Who would have thought that Muhammad Ali’s defiant repudiation of American foreign policy, in the mid-1960s considered virtually traitorous by some observers, would come to be, in the decade to follow, a widespread and altogether respectable political position?’
The same can be said of Rosa Parks when she refused to give up her seat. At the time it was a controversial move, and events may have turned out different if she did not have overwhelming support throughout America, including that of Martin Luther King Jr. During the bus boycott, Parks was never as despised, as Ali once was. Ali was condemned for his actions and many believed he was a security risk; while Parks was praised for her actions. Another difference between the two icons that fought for the same ideals is their public image. Ali, a famous boxer, is often perceived as an angry man with fists clenched. Whereas Parks is perceived as a calm, peaceful lady; even in the Rosa Parks monument she has a smile on her face. Both Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali symbolize the disintegration of African-Americans, yet they represent this is different ways.
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