The world mourned the loss of a true freedom fighter and champion on Friday June 10th with the funeral of Muhammad Ali.

As a child of African immigrants to the United Kingdom in the late 60’s Ali was a major role model. Watching television in 1970s Britain, we were presented with representations of black people as slaves, drug dealers, prostitutes and criminals; so seeing Muhammad Ali on British television was an amazing, almost miraculous sight. What was particularly striking was that he was unapologetically black, supremely intelligent, deeply religious and consciously political. As a young black boy growing up in an environment where blackness was at best tolerated and mostly despised, one could not but be drawn to this towering figure and what he represented on behalf of African descended people across the globe.

As a Seventh-day Adventist I was also interested in Muhammad Ali’s connections with the church and have read and listened with interest to the stories of his various associations with a wide range of church people. It would appear that it was a mutually beneficial relationship and that Muhammad Ali had a positive impression of the denomination. Reading about Ali’s interactions with the church reminded me of the church’s interaction with a one-time very close friend of Ali’s and another giant of black liberation struggle Malcolm X. In his autobiography Malcolm says this of his encaliXounter with the church:

The Adventists felt that we were living at the end of time, that the world was coming to an end. But they were the friendliest white people I had ever seen (X, Malcolm; The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Middlesex, Penguin 1968 p.96)

Reflecting on the interactions of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X with the church, it is interesting to note that both thought of SDA church members as nice, decent people. I wonder what we should think of this? Two of the most radical, controversial and influential black faith-based activists of the twentieth century, thought we were nice. Not casting any aspersions on the genuine efforts and sincere engagements of the people that directly interacted with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, this seminal moment does offer an opportunity for the church to reflect more deeply on how it has handled issues of racial justice and equality. In particular, I think the SDA church hierarchy needs to ask itself some searching questions in relation to its response to the racialized terror, Jim Crow segregation and oppression that Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X fought so determinedly against. It is noteworthy to me that in reading about Muhammad Ali’s and Malcolm X’s interaction with the church neither mention it as a supporter or advocate for them in their quest for equal rights and dignity for African descended peoples. For a denomination that has often been complicit or silent in its nation’s dehumanisation and systematic oppression of its African descended population and which is now trading on its associations with a radical black freedom fighter one can legitimately ask  is being nice or friendly an appropriate response?

I think the church needs to do more than be nice, say sorry or call for the disbandment of regional conferences in response to three hundred plus years of racialized terror. Being reminded of the courageous activism of both Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, and countless other women and men who have challenged racial injustice I would argue that the church needs to adopt a Zacchaeun model in relation to the African-American community in the United States and with other marginalized minority communities around the world. By this I mean the church needs to proactively use its energy and resources to repair and restore what has been damaged by past oppressive practice just as Zacchaeus did when he came to Jesus. That might mean for the church in North America to establish permanent free quality health clinics in African-American neighbourhoods to repair the damage caused by its past segregated unequal and unjust healthcare policies. It could mean establishing free schools in poor neighbourhoods to atone for its awful Jim Crow education policies. Whatever it decides in practice, the church needs to take meaningful measures that demonstrates that the church recognises its obligations to those that it has wronged, and that as a Christian organisation it is willing to do what it takes to put things right. I think Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X would consider that to be a more appropriate response to the plight of African-Americans and African descended peoples globally alongside being friendly or nice.

William Ackah


William Ackah is Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies at Birkbeck, University of London and a co- founder and co-convenor of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. He is 2016-17 Fulbright Scholar and from October will be based at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary researching the impact of gentrification on African American Church Congregations.

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