Woke up to the news of Ali's death. Here's my feeling early in the morning:
"Shoot them for what?" he said after he refused induction into the military to go fight in Vietnam. "They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They never put dogs on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. What do I want to shoot them for, for what? Why do I want to go shoot them, poor little people and babies and children and women? How can I shoot them? Just take me to jail."
I was seven years old that day. June 20 is my birthday. It was the background noise on our fuzzy little black and white TV in our little one bedroom apartment in our little town in Indiana. Walter Cronkite reported the news. But I noticed when a man said what he meant and meant what he said. After that, whenever he was on the TV, I would stop and listen. At least before the channel was changed or the TV was turned off. Cassius Clay was no hero in our house. He was un-American for not going to war. But he was a hero to me. Even then, even when I didn’t really know why.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew who I was,” he said. You always see that quote without the second sentence. But he was quick to tell you that he made himself. And the deeper truth was that if he could do it, so could you, so could anyone. Change your mind, change your world. "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen."
Those were different days back in the 1960s and 1970s, full of turmoil, uncertainty and fear. Much like now. We needed heroes, though not everyone agreed. I heard the hate directed his way, saw it in the world I lived in every day. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to face it. "Don't count the days, make the days count," he said, and he did. Hate is louder these days. There will be those who echo the past, say he was no hero. Maybe not to them. That’s okay. But can we have some silence? For just a moment?
He changed his name, not who he was. After the fights were over, his gentleness shined even brighter. We were all looking then. “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life," he said. Age took its toll, but bitterness never set in. He said he wouldn’t change a thing. And that makes him a hero as much as anything else he ever did or said.
Muhammad Ali was mortal in the end, just like us all. A man from humble beginnings who believed that there were no bounds, no limitations for himself or anyone else. It was him, among many others, who taught me to never give up, to believe in the things that will happen because of conviction and unwavering belief. It was Ali who helped teach me the power of words and the power of love. Millions of voices are saying the same thing today. And they should. I’m glad to have walked the earth at the same time as him. Thank you. Thank you, for fighting the fight, for standing up when you were told to stand down. Thank you, Mr. Ali, for changing yourself and for changing the world.
"The man who has no imagination has no wings." Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)