Muhammad Ali and Pelé: Two Black Icons, Two Different Visions of Racial Politics

The death of Muhammad Ali has left those of us who seek a voice of protest in sports reeling, lost and looking for a role model. We long for another figure who has the courage to use sport to fight for social justice, who has a message that transcends the game. Ali had a predecessor in baseball’s Jackie Robinson, and some contemporaries in Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics gold medal celebration, as well as soccer’s rebel Socrates, who fought for democracy. But while all of these men were athletes who also had a message to transmit to the world, there was no one quite like Ali – a frenetic, charismatic fighter who could scream “I am the King of the world,” and be right.

With all the iconic images circling in the wake of Ali’s passing, one stands out in my mind as a symbol of how important he was outside the ring – mostly because of how he stands in contrast to another international icon: Pelé.

The photo is of a kiss on the cheek between Pelé and Muhammad Ali. It was taken in 1977, at Pelé’s farewell game with the New York Cosmos at Giants Stadium. Ali, the greatest of all time, was the special guest of O Rei on the field. They exchanged a kiss on the cheek before saying their goodbyes. Pelé in an interview with Remezcla last month remembered the afternoon like this: “There was Ali, I gave him a kiss and started to talk to the stadium, but all I could say was ‘Please say with me three times: love love love’; [I said it] three times, with my fist in the air.”

It was the 70s, a politically charged time all around the world, and the two superstars represented two very different positions in the fight for civil rights. On one side was Ali, a vocal advocate for black pride and equality, who was considered by many a civil rights icon.On the other side was Pelé, who has been heavily criticized by many Afro-Brazilians for what they considered his apolitical stance on social issues that touched on race, class and Brazil’s military dicatatorship.

While Ali was a symbol of African-American pride during the civil rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s, Pelé has denied that racial problems even exist in Brazil.

We know that Ali’s activism was inspired by Malcolm X, with whom he later created a deep friendship. Ali found a spiritual and political home with the Nation of Islam. Ali rose up to fight with a bravery that is not only rare in sports, but anywhere in the world. He chose to face off against oppression and confront the lie that America in that time was a place of “equal opportunities” for all.

At the same time, Pelé – Ali’s contemporary – became a symbol of the Brazilian myth of racial democracy by declaring repeatedly that all Brazilians were treated the same – even as evidence showed that deeply-rooted inequalities held many Afro-Brazilians back.

Brazil and the United States, of course, have distinct histories of colonization and racial identity, so the parallels can only be drawn to a point.

In the United States, African-Americans grew up with the specter of the one-drop rule, which asserted that anyone with even “one drop” of sub-Saharan-African ancestry should be considered black. Meanwhile in Brazil, people were taught to consider themselves multi-racial, pardo, or simply Brazilian, if they had even a small part of non-African ancestry. In Mexico, for example, the word mestizo is used in a similar way.

Ali screamed that he was the king for a reason. He was not only the world’s greatest boxer but he was a champion in the fight for equality and against racism.

Pelé is also a king but because he chose to stay silent on the biggest debates of his time, his reign will always be limited to the four corners of the soccer pitch.