ABOVE PHOTO: Muhammad Ali receives Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center. From left in photo is daughter Laila Ali, wife Lonnie, Ali, Ali’s sister-in-law and 2012 Olympic gold medalists Clarissa Shields and Susan Francia.
(Photo by Bill Z. Foster)
By Chris Murray
To merely focus on the great boxing career of three-time former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali on what he did as an athlete, is just telling half the story.
Not only was Ali the greatest inside the ring, but as a man who took an unpopular stand based on principle and at the risk of losing millions of dollars, he transcended boxing in a way that no athlete ever has in the history of sports.
For refusing to accept induction into the United States Army based on his religious beliefs, Ali inspired millions to understand that the real essence of being an American is not always about agreeing with your government, but your right to dissent when you believe your government is in error.
The National Constitution Center made Ali a recipient of the Liberty Medal and honored him during ceremonies outside the center on Thursday. The man, formerly known as Cassius Clay, was honored by for his lifetime of service as a fighter for human rights in the United States and all over the world. It was the first time an athlete received the honor.
To me, it was fitting that Ali receive the Liberty Medal because when he refused induction into the military to fight in the Vietnam War, it was the ultimate act of patriotism because he exercised his right as an American citizen to disagree with what he felt was an unjust policy of his government.
Back in 1967 when Ali refused induction into the Army, there were many Americans that felt he was being unpatriotic. In fact, people who protested the war in Vietnam, including prominent activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were labeled as un-American and disloyal to the country.
Flash forward to 1991, when I was a young reporter with the Bay City (Mich.) Times I covered an anti-Gulf War protest just outside of Saginaw. As I was interviewing one of the protestors, a guy drove past and taunted the protestors by saying, “America, love it or leave it.”
When I asked the protestor for his reaction to what the guy in the car was saying, the man answered, “I wouldn’t be out here protesting if I didn’t love my country.”
That’s why I say that Ali, King and everyone who has protested the wars our country has been involved in since Vietnam are just as patriotic and loyal to the nation as those who put on that uniform and fight on the front lines. And yes, it was just as wrong for some people in the anti-war movement to label the soldiers who fought in that war as “baby killers.”
Ali not only disagreed with fighting a war overseas when there was racial injustice at home, but he also voiced his opposition to the war based on his religious beliefs as a Muslim.
According to the principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, Ali’s opposition to the war was not at all un-American. As a consequence, Ali had to redress his grievances in a court of law and ultimately had his conviction overturned in 1970.
“He lost three and a half years of his career,” said Ali’s wife Lonnie. “He gave up the prime years of his career. He paid a huge price for that. The great thing about Muhammad was that he took the stand and has no bad feelings toward the government for what they did. He felt they had to do what they had to do and he did what he had to do.”
Over the years, many Americans, especially conservatives and the extreme Right wing of the Republican Party, have confuse the term, patriotism, as simply blind loyalty and loving your country right or wrong while vilifying people as un-American if they don’t believe as they do. Wrapping yourself up in a flag and singing jingoistic songs has very little to do with love for country. Those things are a very myopic view of what patriotism really means.
Patriotism and love for country in the American context should mean that we respect all points of view and the diversity of the American citizenry. Ali’s example inspires us to say that it is a part of our fabric as an American people of all races and religions that we can question and disagree with our government’s policies because we love our country.
Ali’s life in the public eye as a boxer and as a man was always marked by his willingness to challenge the status quo. His critics labeled him as a radical for expressing his right to self-determination when he no longer referred to himself as Cassius Clay and became a member of the Nation of Islam.
Sports writers of the 1960s hated Ali’s pre-fight antics and him boasting of his prowess in the ring. In his younger days as a fighter, Ali would predict the ring his opponent would fall and he was often right. He was comfortable in his own Black skin when others weren’t and when American society said he and people who look like him shouldn’t be.
At the end of the day, I say bravo to the National Constitution Center for selecting a man in Ali who truly exemplified the very ideals and principles of what it means to be an American. Unlike people like Dr. King and the other soldiers in the human rights struggles of the 1960s, I am glad that we can give the People’s Champion his flowers before he leaves this earth.