For those of us old enough to recall the grandeur, the chaos and the revolutionary fervor of the era in which Muhammad Ali came of age, there is nothing but reverence for who he was and what he gave to us. In every way, he was a giant of a man, who spoke up about injustice, who did the right thing for his people and for all oppressed people, and who had become perhaps the best-known face on the earth during a lifetime of ups and downs.
Despite his, at times, hard-nosed Black Power sympathies, even more remarkable is that Ali is remembered for the “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” joy he brought to his job. “I beat people up,” he explained in order to make sure people knew there was a working man at the foundation of his celebrity. At the same time, he embraced his celebrity as an opportunity to change lives, offering encouragement to his fans and followers. “If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you,” he promised.
Perhaps Ali’s most powerful act as a national leader came over his refusal to allow himself to be drafted and make the Vietcong his enemy. “Shoot them (Viet Cong) for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?” Eventually, the nation would favor Ali’s view over that of the United States government.
Words fail us in attempting once again to eulogize Ali except to use Shakespeare: “He was a man through and through. We shall not see his like again.”