Posted by Natalie Nisco-Frank on June 04, 2016 in Blog

As the world mourns the passing of civil rights icon and world-renowned athlete, Muhammad Ali, AAI President, James Zogby, remembered some of the special moments Ali shared with our community and his larger contributions to humanity on SiriusXM’s "Dean Obeidallah Show” this Saturday: 

DO: ….You actually knew Muhammad Ali. In fact, the one time I met Muhammad Ali for seconds was at 2004, at the dinner of the AAI, which you run. You were giving him the Lifetime Achievement Award. What was it like, first of all, how well did you know? Was it beyond that?

JZ: I didn’t know him well. But it was in 1970. He had gotten out of jail, fought I think it was his second fight out. I was living in graduate student housing near Temple University. I was at the grocery store one day and as I walked out of the store, I saw a tan Rolls Royce pull up in front of a store that was next to the grocery store, called Ducky's Dashery. It was an African American neighborhood and Ducky's was a clothing store….And I looked, and this guy got out who looked like Muhammad Ali. So I walked over to Ducky's, and open the door, and there was no body in the store. So I yell, “Champ, is that you?” and I hear from the back, “Yeah. Come on back.” So I went back. And there he was, larger than life. And he had fought a fight and had gotten beaten up a bit, he’d won, the night before. But he looked beautiful. I had never seen anybody as gorgeous in my life. And we talked. We spent a considerable time talking about the fight, about the war in Vietnam, about Islam, because I was in my doctoral program at the time and got my PhD in Islamic Studies. He was just an amazing, engaging person and I guess [he] appreciated the fact that we were having a conversation about stuff other than kind of hero worship or something. But you know, you make the point about being a Muslim. I think that the courage of his conviction in opposing the war, is what made so many in my generation just respect him beyond belief. This is a guy who, three years of his life and three years of his career, gave up because he opposed fighting in that war. And there’s something quite admirable in that. I didn’t see him again until, well actually, when I started the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and he signed on as one of the advisory board people and [he] did the same with ADC. I got him to do that when I started ADC, the anti-discrimination committee. Then, he did an event to raise money for Iraqi children that I went to and got to introduce him in Richmond of all places. And then we invited him to the Gibran dinner and I remember it was kind of interesting because the Parkinson’s had already taken a toll. And I had given him the award and then I got up at the end and made some closing remarks about how I’d met him the first time in 1970. And he said from the floor, he said “that was you” and remember he got up on stage and gave me a hug and everything and then he proceeded to talk for what must have been 10-15 minutes telling stories, that were difficult for some to understand because of the Parkinson’s, but people told me afterward who were with him that was like the longest time he had spoken in years. The stories were funny, people laughed; they just couldn’t believe that Muhammad Ali was regaling them with stories after having been silent for so many years. It was an extraordinary night.

DO: I remember that. I remember him being funny. And I looked it up and I found one article that talked a little bit about his speech and about that night. And it talked about him saying “When I converted to Islam, I felt like the Muslims around the world were my brother.” And I’m like ‘wow what an interesting statement’ and that’s sort of in my article that that I wrote for the Daily Beast that came out today. That very notion, that he was right. That Muslims around the world did view him as their brother, and much more closely than I ever thought. Younger generation Muslims, who never saw him box and never saw him stand up to the Vietnam War. Who, when I reached out to, were like “this guy moved me. He made us proud”. He was a role model to many of them. And I’m sure to many people, not just, you [don’t] have to be Muslim to like him. I imagine most of his fans are not Muslim, frankly. He represented something very, very, I guess on some level great, but also polarizing then. You were there, you were conscious of the time. How much was he viewed not as being popular by White American at the time? When he was saying “I’m not going to Vietnam,” and some of his famous comments. 

JZ: Well the war was an enormously divisive event. It pitted families against each other. It was in some ways, part of an American cultural civil war. That whole period was a very profoundly disturbing one. There was not only the war; there was the social unrest around race, there was the cultural revolution, we had come out of a period of time from between the two World Wars, the Depression that had occurred at that point, and then the wars, and then the McCarthy era and communism, and the beginning of mass media and the projection of a dominant culture. We were all supposed to be like “Leave it to Beaver,” you know cute little families of middle class, two children, everybody respectful and dressed in whatever. And then there was this upheaval. And it was partly driven by race, it was partly drive by the war, it was partly driven by the collapse of confidence in government. But it also became a broader cultural revolution. And in the middle of all of that, you have this character, who took professional sports from being simply a spectator event that “Leave it to Beaver” watched and/or went to, to a politically charged event. It was not just, as it had been in an earlier era, the black guy fighting the white guy, and the great white hope kind of thing. But it was also, he brought the political, the race issue and the war issue, into the boxing arena with him. And I think that in that sense, he was emblematic of all that was taking place in American at that time. The significance of it can’t be overstated….

DO: Alright, well he went on a little bit later to say that he’s the prettiest boxer. He said “that’s my thing. I’m the prettiest around.”  It was fun to watch him. It was fun watching these clips. I didn’t remember him then, I wasn’t alive. But watching him and the other… him trash talking like you’ve never seen. “I’m the greatest, I’m the world champion” and you can’t help but get sucked up into it. But at the time, was it really remarkable for America to see anyone, but especially a black man saying these kinds of things?”

JZ: Like I said, it was transformative. And so all of the contradictions that were unfolding in this society, all of the tensions, the rift, the war, race, etc. all came into this one person, who brought it into the ring. What Julian Bond brought into the Democratic Convention in 1968, Muhammad Ali brought to the ring every time he fought. So you had not just a man fighting another man. But you had the coalescing of the war and the struggle for racial equality fighting against an entire culture that held that back. Which is why, unfairly I think to some extent, but still is what he did, he would call them Uncle Tom, his opponents. He was fighting against an establishment, an establishment that promoted a war and promoted racial discrimination. So there was a lot going on every time he went into the ring, every time he did a press conference. When he went to jail, a generation went to jail with him. And the divisions of that era never really went away, they got lionized later. But the tensions of that period are still with us today. We are still fighting in this presidential contest between the issues of racial equality, of whether or not we have a militarized foreign policy, whether or not we pursue justice as an ultimate goal. Those issues are still with us.

In 2004, the Arab American Institute Foundation presented Ali with the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Award for Lifetime Achievement. Introducing Ali, Dr. Zogby praised him for his opposition to war and for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War which got him banned from boxing for three years. Dr. Zogby also thanked him for his service on the advisory board of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and for raising money for the hungry in U.S.-sanctioned Iraq. 

Here’s an account from AAI’s archive: 

Perhaps the brightest of the evening’s many highlights was Muhammad Ali’s acceptance of the Gibran Award for Individual Achievement, presented by AAI President James Zogby. “He was a hero for my generation and he became a hero for all ages,” Zogby said. “He fought hunger. He fought torture. He fought for peace. He fought to free hostages…Unpopular causes to some, but for The Champ no cause that was right was too unpopular to be fought.”

Ali’s appearance electrified the room as he spoke of his conversion to Islam and the principles that guided his exceptional career. “My name was changed to Muhammad Ali. It was Cassius Clay. Cassius Clay was a white man in 1850. He named his slave Cassius Clay. He named his son Cassius Clay all the way up until it got to me. When I heard that was my name, I changed it to Muhammad Ali. Then people in Africa and all over the world started recognizing me as their brother because of my name.” In top form, Ali performed a magic trick for the clearly inspired crowd. 

Although struggling with his illness, but in amazing form, Ali added: “A black cup of coffee was a strong cup of coffee.” 

Again from the archive: 

Ali’s wife, Yolanda Ali, spoke of her husband’s love for people “regardless of where they are, who they are, where they come from, what religion they practice, what political persuasion.” She spoke of Ali’s dedication to promoting inclusion and understanding about Arabs and Islam after September 11th. “It was very important to him that he put into the forefront of American thought that this is not what Islam is about. That it is a religion of peace. And that is how he has always tried to live his life…He lives by example.”