Muhammad Ali – Legend, Activist, Leader

“I am the Greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”   – Muhammad Ali

Since his death last Friday in Arizona, words of praise for the life of Muhammad Ali have been making their way around the media.

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“He was arguably the greatest fighter of all time,” Ali biographer Thomas Hauser said.

But Hauser was quick to add that his skills as a boxer did not necessarily define his greatness. It was his social conscience.

“Every time he looked in the mirror and said ‘I’m so pretty,’ what he was really saying before it became fashionable was ‘black is beautiful.’ When he refused induction in the United States Army, he stood up for the proposition that unless you have a very good reason for killing people, war is wrong.

“I think in the end, his greatest contribution might have been that there was an aura of pure good will and love about him,” Hauser added. “He taught us how to love.”

“I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.” – Muhammad Ali

In 2013, New York Times Sports writer Bill Rhoden talked about Ali’s stand against the draft.

“Here was the Greatest, telling the world that he was not going to war. For me, words like conscience, principle and integrity were merely terms in a civics class. When Ali defended his controversial position, how he had no appetite for war, standing for one’s principle became concrete.”

“The word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace.’ The word ‘Muslim’ means ‘one who surrenders to God.’ Allah’s the Arabic term for God. Stand up for God, fight for God, work for God and do the right thing, and go the right way, things will end up in your corner.”     – Muhammad Ali

While Ali was one of the first celebrities to take a personal stand against the war in Vietnam, he also respected the sacrifices other Americans were making who chose to fight. In 1967, absent the boisterous bravado that made him a favorite in the ring, Ali made his position unequivocally clear:

“I never thought of myself as great when I refused to go into the Army. All I did was stand up for what I believed. There were people who thought the war in Vietnam was right. And those people, if they went to war, acted just as brave as I did. There were people who tried to put me in jail. Some of them were hypocrites, but others did what they thought was proper and I can’t condemn them for following their conscience either.

“Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted.

“The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war. Then, after the rich man’s son got out of college, he did other things to keep him out of the Army until he was too old to be drafted. So what I did was for me, but it was the kind of decision everyone has to make.

“Freedom means being able to follow your religion, but it also means carrying the responsibility to choose between right and wrong. So when the time came for me to make up my mind about going in the Army, I knew people were dying in Vietnam for nothing and I should live by what I thought was right. I wanted America to be America. And now the whole world knows that, so far as my own beliefs are concerned, I did what was right for me.”

He was the Greatest: a legend that became an activist; the activist that became a leader; the leader who became a role model of respect and integrity.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
          – Muhammad Ali

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