A small group met Sunday in Charlotte’s Marshall Park to remember the life and legacy of boxing great Muhammad Ali, who died Friday at age 74 following a long battle with Parkinson’s syndrome.
The speakers, some with firsthand knowledge of Ali, recalled the boxer’s humility as well as his conscientious refusal to enlist in the U.S. military during the Vietnam war – a refusal that saw him widely scorned in the United States and stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. The U.S. Supreme Court would eventually reverse that decision.
At the time of his death, and even long before that, Ali had become arguably the most revered athletes in American history – an icon to generations who admired his African American pride and principled stand on issues related to human dignity, global peace and civil rights.
“If there is anything you remember about the man, remember that he was a man of principle – a man who was willing to question his government when it was necessary to question his government,” said Jabril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte.
“We need more people like him,” Hough said. “As we look around today, who do we have in sports who is willing to take the kind of stand that he took? Who do we have outside of sports who is willing to take that. That’s why this man is great.”
Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who also spoke, said Ali was “larger than life” and “made you want to watch” him. She recalled being in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics, where Ali, physically diminished by his fight with Parkinson’s, lit the Olympic torch, to the delight of millions who saw it live or watched the ceremony on TV.
“I think many people will continue to be inspired by Muhammad Ali in so many ways,” Roberts said. “He was a great proponent of racial equality and racial inclusion. He was a proponent of working hard and overcoming and continuing to strive for excellence and to be that number-one champion in the world.”
Roberts said Ali, who converted to Islam after winning the heavyweight title, also helped open the nation’s eyes to religious inclusion.
“A lot of people began to realize that America is a nation of many religions, and all are welcome here.” she said. “…Even here in Charlotte, we are many religions, we are many faiths, we are many races, we are many ethnicities, we are many types of people, but we welcome everyone, and we want to fight for everyone. We want to make sure everyone is included. And I think that is part of the legacy of Muhammad Ali.
Patrick Graham, CEO of Urban League of Central Carolinas and a history professor at Strayer University, said he counts Ali among the greatest humanitarians in history. He said he also believed that God’s providence was at work in the timing of Ali’s death.
“God does not make mistakes,” Graham said. “The fact that we are now memorializing Ali at this point in our history is not a mistake — the fact that you have politician attacking my Muslim brothers and sister.
“His death, right now, is also an act of God,” Graham said. “It’s a reminder to us all that this nation has to be better than what we have seen over the last year. So the question becomes this: what type of men and women do we want to be?”