When you get to be my age, you notice that people you have known about all your life are dying on a regular basis. David Bowie, Prince, and now Muhammad Ali. This is not an obituary, but a brief tribute to someone who overcame obstacles that I have never had to face, made a life and career for himself, and was willing to put that life and that career in danger on behalf of a principle.
Born Cassius Clay, in 1964 he became a champ, and he became a Muslim, affiliated with America’s own Nation of Islam. Inspired by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, who taught Black Americans to love self and kind, over his life he showed his love for people of all races and colors. In the years after health problems ended his boxing career, he devoted himself to uplifting the poor and oppressed in America and the world through his own charitable activities.
In later years, health problems ended his fighting career. In his earlier life, a stand for principle put his career on hold, as he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Military. As a Muslim he did not feel an obligation to fight and die for a government that kept his own people from enjoying the benefits of freedom. As a human being he did not feel it to be right to go overseas and kill people that he did not know and could hardly have a grudge against.
In his most insightful monolog, comedian George Carlin noted that Muhammad Ali had sought a consciencious objector exemption from military service. Carlin said they denied his request because of his job – beating people up. But, he quoted Ali saying “I don’t kill people, that’s where I draw the line.”
Muhammad Ali was just as articulate about the issue. He noted that when he gets into the ring, he and his opponent hurt each other as a sport. But war is different. “In war the intention is to kill, kill, kill and keep on killing innocent people.”
In opposing war he undertook a humanitarian mission greater than the charity works that absorbed much of his later life. For refusing induction, he lost his title and was banned from boxing until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service System.
Before the draft became the issue, he was best known for his poetry, and what some considered egotistical blustering, when he proclaimed “I am the Greatest.” Those who met him in the ring often decided after the fact that he was “the Greatest.”
The Scots poet Robert Burns wrote many years ago “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us,to see ourselves as others see us.” Muhammad Ali had a more powerful giftie; he got the world to see him as he saw himself. So I join with every other commenter today to say farewell to “The Greatest of All Time.”