ERVIN WILLIAMS JR.: The MLK Alumni Contest winner gave special greetings as the Martin Luther King Jr. Coordinating Committee hosted its MLK 2024 Kick Off Service at the MLK Landmark Memorial on Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach on Friday evening, starting the MLKCC’s annual monthlong series of events in the spirit of the eminent leader with this year’s theme, “Embrace Love, Peace, and Justice.” C.B. HANIF PHOTO / SOUTH FLORIDA TIMES

“Embrace Love, Peace, and Justice.” Few people can make the claim to be champions of love, peace, and justice like Muhammad Ali. Maybe it’s ironic that he competed in a notoriously brutal sport such as boxing, yet everyone can learn from the message that he spread.

So what does it mean to be like Ali? This is best illustrated by his actions during the Vietnam War era. Ali was a master at using the media to his advantage. He would famously trash-talk his opponents on air and in press conferences, which generated attention to his fights. He similarly used the press to voice his opinions on the war.

"Why should me and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles away from here in America to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who’ve never bothered us?" he said. "I will say directly, no, I will not go 10,000 miles to help kill innocent people." He was later arrested in Houston.

Ali was a devout Muslim, and in the Islamic faith, life is sacred. He risked his boxing career for the things he believed in. Ali was an outspoken black man, in a nation where being just that could get you killed. In the face of a behemoth, Ali didn’t shake. He was willing to risk his freedom in order to legitimize the ideas that he believed in. We should be like Ali when interacting with the world around us; standing for what is right despite the consequences. In the United States we have the privilege to voice our opinions, and we shouldn’t take that tool for granted.

As time progresses, we are seeing the ugly head of conflict rearing its face in many nations around the world. Civil wars, oppressive regimes and human trafficking are more widespread than we’d like to admit. Ignoring the problem is an illusory solution. It’s only fair that we advocate for the people in situations less fortunate than our own, not only because we would want our own preservation if we were in the same position, but because we are all human. Regardless of our differences in religion, ideology, or political alignment, we should advocate for everyone to have their beliefs and freedoms without penalty. Children and parents shouldn’t have to fear separation in foreign lands with their only alternative being life under oppressive regimes. Peace is the solution. If there is chaos everywhere, we can’t expect to find love or justice, therefore we need to advocate for peace.

Love is a powerful tool in the human arsenal. We can choose to utilize it in positive ways or negative ways. People often love trivial things such as money. But the ultimate utility of love is to build bridges. These bridges connect people, and are what form relationships and communities. It is important to remember that we all are part of one community or another, whether voluntarily, or by virtue of being born that way. No matter how we gained membership to that community, it is vital that we each do our part in molding the community in a way in which it can be as tolerable as possible as time moves forward. Muhammad Ali loved Islam, civil rights and boxing. He put civil rights in front of boxing because he wanted his communities to exist equally. He sacrificed what he loved to help those he loved.

Justice is another state that we strive for. Of course, true justice is hard to achieve. We can, however, take measures to prevent injustice. We can educate our children about other cultures, religions, and races. We can teach them that people are different, not worse than them, and that these differences are things to be celebrated, because they are the reason we have all the wonderful traditions we have today.

Justice is important so that everyone is treated fairly and can be as prosperous as possible. Justice was a driving force for the Civil Rights Movement: people wanting to be recognized not as 3/5ths of a human, or as a different species, but as full, real human beings, the same as everyone else. A lot of the Civil Rights Movement was directed toward rectifying the mistakes of the past, notably the systematic enslavement of African people for hundreds of years. The ensuing discriminatory system continued to oppress them afterwards.

Today, many people still reel from the effects of slavery. This is an example of what happens when we don’t treat people fairly. Unfortunately, similar situations still exist, and we need to petition our governments and educate our neighbors as to why it’s wrong. Like Dr. King and others, Muhammad Ali wasn’t scared to speak out for love, peace, and justice. Neither should we be.

This article was written for the annual Essay Competition hosted by the Martin Luther King Jr. Coordinating Committee. Winners will be announced Jan. 15 at the MLKCC’s 43rd Annual Scholarship Breakfast at the Palm Beach County Convention Center on the King Federal Holiday.