By Kathy Matheson
Retired boxing great Muhammad Ali visited Philadelphia to receive the Liberty Medal, an award recognizing his longtime role as a fighter outside the ring for humanitarian causes, civil rights and religious freedom.
The honor will be presented on Thursday during a ceremony at the National Constitution Center by the champ’s daughter, who is also a boxer, and two U.S. Olympic athletes. It comes with a $100,000 cash prize.
“Ali embodies the spirit of the Liberty Medal by embracing the ideals of the Constitution — freedom, self-governance, equality and empowerment — and helping to spread them across the globe,” former President Bill Clinton, the center’s chairman, said in a statement.
Since hanging up his gloves in 1981, Ali has traveled extensively on international charitable missions and devoted his time to philanthropy and social causes.
His wife Lonnie is slated to speak on his behalf at the ceremony. A 30-year battle with Parkinson’s disease has devastated the once-chiseled physique that made Ali an Olympic champion and three-time heavyweight title holder.
Other scheduled attendees include Joe Louis Barrow II, son of boxer Joe Louis; actor Terrence Howard, who played Ali in an ABC-TV biography; singer Roberta Flack, who will perform; and former basketball star Dikembe Mutombo, a Constitution Center board member and Congo native who said he was inspired by Ali’s 1974 visit to that country for the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Ali’s daughter Laila will join Claressa Shields and Susan Francia in bestowing the Liberty Medal. Last month, the 17-year-old Shields became the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in boxing. Francia is a two-time rowing gold medalist from nearby Abington, Pa.
Ali was born Cassius Clay but changed his name after converting to Islam in the 1960s. He refused to serve in the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs and was stripped of his heavyweight crown in 1967. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling later cleared him of a draft-evasion conviction; he regained the boxing title in 1974 and again 1978.
Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — in 2005. He has also established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center in Phoenix and a namesake educational and cultural institute in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
The National Constitution Center, which opened in 2003, is dedicated to increasing public understanding of the Constitution and the ideas and values it represents. It awards the Liberty Medal annually to an individual who displays courage and conviction while striving to secure freedom for people around the world.
Previous recipients include rock singer and human rights activist Bono, former South African President Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter. Six winners later received the Nobel Peace Prize.