Muhammad Ali Receives National Constitution Center's 2012 Liberty Medal
Athletes, politicians and stars recognize "The Greatest" as a Champion of Freedom.
Muhammad Ali received the Liberty Medal Thursday night at a ceremony at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center that included speeches by his daughter Laila Ali, Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, and actor Terrence Howard.
Ali, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, appeared frail and did not speak, but stood with assistance so that Laila Ali could place the medal around his neck. He spent several minutes then holding the medal in his hands, studying it.
“It’s an honor to be here and just wonderful to see him. We both aren’t always at the same place at the same time, and he’s getting older,” said Laila Ali, after the ceremony. “I think he loved it. If you saw how he was grasping on to that medal, he totally zoned out. He was just into it, like a little kid.”
The Liberty Medal honors people and organizations for their humanitarian work. Past recipients have included Nelson Mandela, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Howard, who played Ali in the ABC biopic "Muhammad Ali: King of the World," spoke of Ali standing up against the Vietnam War, even though it almost cost him his career. In 1967, Ali refused to join the U.S. Army due to his religious beliefs. As a result, he was charged with draft evasion, fined and stripped of his boxing license and title. The Supreme Court reversed the decision in 1971.
“He chose to become an outsider for the sake of standing up for something that’s right,” said Howard.
Former basketball star and fellow humanitarian Dikembe Mutombo said he was inspired seeing Muhammad Ali come to his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, in October 1974, for the famed “rumble in the jungle” against George Forman. Mutombo’s mother was a soda vendor who worked at the stadium, and so she was able to get Mutombo and his friends in to see the fight.
“I saw the respect he received as a black athlete, and it meant something to me, and to others in my country,” said Mutumbo.
One of the most poignant speeches of the evening was the one given by Joe Louis Barrow II, son of professional boxer Joe Louis. Barrow fought back tears as he spoke of Ali’s character in and out of the ring, remembering the day when Ali comforted him, as a scared 9-year-old, on the day of his father’s funeral:
“You kissed my mother and you did a magic trick for me and you put your very large hand on my very small shoulder," said Barrow. "And on that day, far away from the bright lights, you gave a scared little boy the courage to face, like all of us, the challenges of a lifetime. For that I simply say, thank you."