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.