The Lasting Legacy of Ali

On Friday, the eyes of the nation were on Louisville as we said goodbye to Muhammad Ali. The Greatest of All Time passed away on Friday, June 3. His body was driven through the city a week later. A procession that covered over 20 miles was witnessed by hundreds of thousands of people. On Friday afternoon, over 15,000 people packed into the KFC Yum! Center for the Ali memorial. Two men who knew Ali since the 1960s, NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, were among the mourners and those who came to Louisville to celebrate the life of the three-time heavyweight champ.

What are the emotions that you have felt this week?
Abdul-Jabbar: Ali was just a wonderful role model and a great champion and leader. He took a stand against the federal government and prevailed, and that was pretty hard to do in those days. Just what he showed us in terms of his courage and his determination to assert himself was incredible.

Were you surprised by the turnout around Louisville?
Abdul-Jabbar: For me, it’s interesting how much Louisville has changed. After Ali won his gold medal in Rome, he tried to get served at a restaurant in Louisville and they wouldn’t let him in, and now the city has turned out to give him an appropriate send-off. I think that says a lot for the city of Louisville and the progress that they’ve made here in terms of accepting everybody as fellow citizens. I think that’s incredible, and I think Ali had a lot to do with that.

What did you learn from Muhammad Ali?
Abdul-Jabbar: I just learned that you’ve got to stick to your principles. You can’t compromise those, especially when you know that you’re right.

You knew him better than most – what can you tell us about him?
Abdul-Jabbar: Muhammad Ali was someone who everybody wanted to emulate. They respected him, and they admired his courage. He never ever compromised what he believed in or how he went about living his life. He did it his way, and he prevailed.

Is this the kind of outpouring of support you expected to see here in Louisville?
Jesse Jackson: I’m not surprised – I’m delighted. Louisville has come to recognize the error of their ways of 1960. We are a better nation because we ended legal segregation. Ali was left in the margins by Louisville and misunderstood because he was not controversial – he was maladjusted. The controversy was caring more for horses than for people. The controversy was you had to pay taxes and couldn’t vote. The controversy was black soldiers on American military bases having to sit behind Prisoners of War. Segregation was controversial. Now, there’s an appreciation that segregation was wrong and Ali along with that group of freedom fighters was right.

How much of an impact did he have?
Jackson: Even when he could only whisper, saying something was morally wrong. It was not the loudness of his voice but the moral authority he represented at this stage of his life.

What was his message?
Jackson: Drawing a multiracial, multicultural, ecumenical crowd is a political statement. It almost embarrasses the political order of our nation – at a time when there are more Muslims than there are Christians, when Muslims and Christians must coexist and not co-annihilate. Even today he is leading us from the grave.

What impressed you about Ali’s development as a leader?
Jackson: Ali used his exalted position as a boxer, a heavyweight champion of the world to project beyond the boxing ring. He was a champion in the ring; people ride champions on their shoulders. He was a hero. He gave up his title but not his crown because the country tried to sabotage his dreams of coexistence. To see Christians and Muslims and Jews and Buddhists under one roof – this is the real dream.  VT