A great American who made a difference
On refusing to be drafted: “I will not [become] a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. I’d rather go to jail. So what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.
— Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali passed June 3, 2016 at age 74. He was the most widely recognized personality of the 20th century, making such a humanitarian impact outside the ring that he made the top 50 influencers of the second half of the 20th century list.
I had a chance to first meet and speak with Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, in Madison, Wisconsin, 1959, during the Pan American Games boxing tryouts. A group of us travelled to Madison from Minneapolis to watch one of the great local Minnesota heroes, Leroy Bogar — one of the most outstanding light heavyweight fighters in boxing history.
In the third round of the light heavyweight tryouts, Bogar was pitted against the young man from Louisville, Kentucky, and although Bogar was TKOed in the second round by Clay, he became, in the first round, the first man to put Clay on the canvas. In his first book, Clay wrote about Bogar, the South paw from Minneapolis.
Cassius Clay would later embrace the Muslim religion and change his name to Muhammad Ali. He became an inspiration to African Americans as the battle lines were being drawn in America in the battle for civil rights, forcing Whites to face and deal with an African American population that would no longer back down.
When Muhammad Ali spoke of the war in Vietnam, many of us understood and respected what he was saying, that this was not a conflict for which African Americans had any skin in the game. We didn’t see the yellow man of Asia as the enemy of the Black man in America.
When stripped of his heavy weight crown for refusing to be drafted by the Army, he fought the decision. When kept out of the ring during his most important years for a boxer, he fought. When he was sentenced to prison, he fought. He took his fight to the Supreme Court, where he won an 8-0 decision. Throughout his life he fought, but did so standing on his principles: peace, inclusion, and non-violence.
This Black man became the most well-known man in the world. Barack Obama became the most powerful man in the world. Each of them broke through the self-imposed ceiling of too many that say Black men can’t go far. They have shown us the way.
Will we stop carrying the racist’s water by refusing any more to claim that being Black is why we can’t succeed? Will we follow their example?
I well remember the respect and deference shown to him by the great legends of politics, entertainment, sports and business, such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, John Carlos, and other great African American athletes, the living ex-presidents, many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and untold Black and White sports and entertainment giants and professionals across the spectrum of accomplished people.
Muhammad Ali was a giant among men and women, a hero to billions. Even Parkinson’s disease couldn’t silence his voice, his message, or the significance of his presence on the world stage.
He will forever be missed but not forgotten. He accomplished much on a great life’s journey. He will be forever remembered as “The Greatest,” as “The Champ.”