A Reflection on Martin Luther King Jr & Muhammad Ali Day
This past Friday, a group of IMAN staff, leaders, and community members from all backgrounds gathered together in the center of a new building on our IMAN Campus on Chicago Lawn to collectively pray and hold remembrance for the Divine together, Black, Latino, brown, white faces all in attendance. The following is an excerpt of the reflection shared that day by IMAN Executive Director, Rami Nashashibi:
“Fifty years ago, a gathering like this would have been unimaginable on 63rd & California. Talk to the Black aunties and grandmothers who fled the terror of the Mississippi Delta South and came to Chicago. Ask them about the prospects of sitting in a neighbourhood like Marquette Park back in 1965. Talk to a Latino grandmother who came in the 1960s and ask them about this possibility. They’ll both look at you like you’re insane. The power of this shared space is a direct consequence of the struggles of those who were willing to endure the pain that came with challenging the world around them –– challenging society to live up to the basic concepts of humanity.
This coming Monday will be a day that has been historically recognized in this country as a preservation of that struggle. We have not only openly, but very enthusiastically participated in the preservation of the legacy of not just Martin Luther King, Jr, but those that marched with him since the inception of this organization 25 years ago. We remember and are grateful for the sacrifice that people made in neighborhoods like this one. People like the 700 marchers that endured glass bottles, bags of feces, and racial epithets as they walked down Kedzie into Marquette Park.
Among those in attendance that day was a man by the name of Bernard Lafayette. Dr Lafayette once reminded me of a critical story regarding the end of Martin Luther King, Jr’s life. As most know, King was in Memphis that April day advocating on behalf of the city’s sanitation workers, having just spoken the day prior in the midst of a grueling thunderstorm. Almost cancelled due to the weather, King extemporaneously greeted the crowd without a script prepared and delivered what became the now-iconic “Mountaintop speech.”
That speech was King’s last recorded words. King declared, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life, [but] longevity has its place. I’m not concerned about that now.” Instead, King went on to say, “I just want to do God’s will.” May the Divine provide each and every one of us final words that act as confirmation of our intention to live in alignment with God’s will.
Among the people who will also be acknowledged for the first time in a very public capacity this Monday is our dear beloved brother, Muhammad Ali. As all who are aware of Ali can testify, there is no shortage of things to say about him, as seen in the countless documentaries, feature films, and other extraordinary projects made about him. Yet those of us who were in Kentucky over four years ago and had the honor to be present at his funeral and memorial service know, the extraordinary love and celebration of his life that occurred those few days was something you could never capture on film. For all of us in attendance, coming from every corner in the world, it was likely the first and last time we will ever experience that type of extraordinary love being shared in one single space for one human being loved so universally.
As told to us through stories by his daughter and our beloved sister, Maryam Ali, Muhammad Ali embodied extraordinary generosity. Even in the latter half of his life, as one of the most recognized figures in the world, Maryam would describe how Muhammad Ali would stop for almost anyone and everyone on the side of the road. His daughters would joke that they grew up wondering if they’d ever have any semblance of wealth as Ali simply never said no to anybody. His absolute devotion to God and love for the people made him the type of person that lit people’s faces up whenever he would encounter them. Of course, he was a world-renowned athlete with a professional talent that inspired many, but the gift God gave him was much greater than any physical skill –– it was with his heart, illuminated with an endless love for God and the people, that this young, Black kid from Louisville, Kentucky was able to fundamentally transform the world.
Whether it be on the faces of young Palestinian refugees outside Bethlehem elated by the presence of Maryam during our recent travels, or at Ali’s memorial service where all of us held space for the intense beauty of his life, one thing was unmistakable: Ali’s life was one defined by a sacred and righteous love. The kind of life that was unmistakably one loved by God.
Our prayer this Monday is that we receive and can offer even a fraction of the love that Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many of our great ancestors had and offered to the people –– whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish or any other tradition. A love for the Divine and for other people, exemplified through a genuine and sincere commitment to serve and organize for change. We pray that as our neighbors walk by our growing campus, they do not see a Muslim space, or a Black space, or a Latino space, or a white space, but a space that shines with the light of genuine love for all people. On this day, we will remember not just the names of Martin Luther King, Jr and Muhammad Ali, but also the names of those who have worked and struggled quietly across the country and world and hold them in our hearts and mind. We gather together in gratitude for them and for those who won’t get mentioned, who won’t get a holiday named after them, but are just as important as anyone else. We remember their essence and we ask that the Divine allow us to be among them in this life and beyond.”