Muhammad Ali was recently announced as the recipient of the National Constitution Center’s 2012 Liberty Medal, awarded to “individuals of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe.” The award makes me smile. I never liked boxing as a sport, but I always liked Muhammad Ali. Aside from his obvious talent, Ali had guts, he spoke out, he was funny, and he refused to fight in a war I also protested. His religious views interested me in Islam, and his views on civil rights provoked me to become a more multicultural person. Using his world-renown, he embarked on citizen diplomacy missions whose success intrigues me. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Ali continues to work for the greater good: “I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.”
This complex figure is one who will captivate the imaginations of students: a world famous athlete and humanitarian with a hip-hop wit and outspoken views. Ali’s civil rights, humanitarian, diplomacy, and anti-war and anti-racism work are deserving of attention in the classroom.
The links below are good tools for introducing students to Muhammad Ali. Numerous encyclopedia articles and biographies are also available. In 1967, Ali spoke out dramatically against the Vietnam War. The YouTube video provides details of Ali’s refusal to be drafted that galvanized the anti-war and civil rights movements of the 1960s-70s. The Constitution Center announcement provides background information on the Award and Ali’s career. The Ali Center website provides videos featuring the Center’s core principles (respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, spirituality, and giving) and a Peace Garden curriculum, inviting schools in underserved communities to apply for funding to plant gardens. Finally, the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Staff provides a strong defense of Ali’s choice as Liberty Medal recipient.
The selection of Muhammad Ali is controversial, and this aspect of the award is one to pursue with students. For example, the Inquirer website has a reader poll featuring questions suitable for a classroom debate: Was it right to give boxing great Muhammad Ali the 2012 Liberty Medal? Yes, honors his fight for religious freedom… No, he dodged the Vietnam draft…. Yes, despite Parkinson's, he's devoted himself to traveling the world on humanitarian missions…. No, better candidates than a former heavyweight boxer…. Other aspects of Ali’s life provide students with opportunities to explore such topics as the relationship between the religion of Islam and the Nation of Islam, freedom of religion afforded under the U.S. 1st Amendment, the U.S. civil rights and anti-war movements, diplomatic and hostage crises from Lebanon to Afghanistan, and brain injury among athletes. Ali will receive the award in a ceremony in Philadelphia on September 13, 2012.
· Link to YouTube Video—Muhammad Ali: Went to jail rather than be drafted for war: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vk6KWdwJ6A Muhammad Ali defends his 1967 decision to refuse to fight in Vietnam: "My conscious won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father....”
· Link to National Constitution Center announcement of Muhammad Ali as winner of 2012 Liberty Medal: http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2012/07/muhammad-ali-to-receive-national-constitution-center%E2%80%99s-2012-liberty-medal/
· Link to Ali Center: http://alicenter.org/site/
· Link to Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial praising the decision: Ali a good choice for the Liberty Medal http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/161852105.html