Last night, Muhammad Ali was in Philadelphia to accept the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center.
The boxing champion was surrounded by friends, family, admirers, and politicians at the televised ceremony on Independence Mall.
Muhammad Ali — a.k.a.Cassius Clay, a.k.a.”The Greatest” — had been the world heavyweight champion and one of the most influential athletes in the world.
At the Liberty Medal ceremony, much time was spent on his legal troubles. In 1967 shortly after converting to Islam, he refused to serve in Vietnam on religious grounds.
Joe Louis Barrow II, the son of the the famous boxer Joe “Brown Bomber” Louis, said growing up with Ali gave him a ringside seat to history.
“Like my father, when you entered into the sport of boxing the world was in turmoil, much like it is today,” said Barrow. “The two of you made opposite choices: my father, choosing to volunteer in World War Two, you, for religious convictions, refusing to serve in Vietnam. In different ways you both defended the ideals of the Constitution.”
The Liberty Medal is awarded to people who embody the ideals of the Constitution. The choice of Muhammad Ali highlighted dissent as an American right.
Ali suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. He did not speak during the ceremony. He didn’t wave or acknowledge anyone as he was led onstage to his waiting chair. He stood only briefly as the medal was put around his neck. For a long time, during a standing ovation, he held the medal in his hands, looking at it through dark glasses.
“Many people admire and respect Muhammad for his principles — even some of those who may not have originally,” said Lonnie Ali, who spoke on her husband’s behalf. “But I hope that these people also admire and respect the principles of the country that gave him the freedom to do what he did.”
The ceremony also included Governor Tom Corbett, Mayor Michael Nutter, actor Terrance Howard, and former 76er Dikembe Mutombo, who remembered when Ali came to his home country, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), to fight George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Mutombo said the respect shown to an African-American athlete made a big impression on him as an 8-year old.