A tribute by Lonnie Ali, wife of Muhammad Ali
2020 marks the fourth anniversary of Muhammad’s passing. The pain of losing him is still as fresh now and it was then. Knowing and feeling that pain makes me understand on a visceral level the pain that is being felt by the families of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and the many others whose loved ones died at the hands of those who are charged to “serve and protect” the citizens of their respective communities. I was fortunate in that my husband was able to lead a full life. His life was not cut short by a bullet or brute force. For those left to mourn the lives of those who were, I know their pain is amplified and hearts heavy with tears of despair and anguish: all of which begs the question, “Why?”
The “Why?” could be the start of many inquires that demand answers for “the pandemic of racism” (a term used by Kentucky born George Clooney in a recent essay) that has plagued this country long before its inception. Something people of color have endured for 400 years and something many Americans have chosen to ignore or deny. Like it or not racism and injustice are alive and well and continues to be a cancer in our society and a clear and present danger to the promise of America for every American. The ugliness of its inhumanity has been laid bare on video tape for all of America and the world to see and not to deny. Too many are frustrated, exhausted and have been pushed to their breaking point. After all, we have not fully emerged from three months of wrath and devastation from a global pandemic, one that brought death and havoc to every community, especially the Black and Latino communities.
As I’ve watched events unfold in real time over the past week, people have reached out to me with the same basic message, “If ever there were a time we needed Muhammad’s voice to be heard, it’s now”. Their search and plea for someone to bring calm and leadership to this crisis is palpable, as is the anguish. Over the past few days, I’ve given much thought to what Muhammad would say and do at this very moment. I’ll never pretend to be as wise as he was in these situations but I know some things to be certain.
First let me say, Muhammad too would be heartbroken for those whose lives were lost and the families they left behind to mourn. He would be heartbroken to know what he and others fought passionately for and some died for—equality and justice for all— are words spoken or written about but still not a right extended to all Americans.
Muhammad was plain spoken and unapologetically would speak truth to power. Much of what he would say would include the acknowledgement of what we have heard over the past week. America has and continues to have a long standing problem with racism and equality for all Americans compounded by social, legal and economic injustices. America has run out of time. He would make clear in his own way that things have to change and they have to change now. We have run out of time. The heart and soul of this country is at stake.
Without question, Muhammad loved his country and everyone in it, even those who didn’t love him back. He loved America in spite of its imperfections. He believed this was the greatest country on earth… even though he too would readily agree that the events that have played out over the past week have left many questioning if real change is possible. Those of us who knew Muhammad, even casually, knew that he was an eternal optimist. He would never lose hope. He believed everyone had the ability to change: the question being left for every individual, “Will you?”.
Muhammad was involved in many protests. Some involved racial discrimination and injustice. Some involved class and economic discrimination. Some involved societal and religious discrimination. Throughout all of these events, many that lasted most of his life, he never threw a brick, he never defaced or set fire to a building or resorted to violence. Granted, he had a large platform from which to express his views and opinions but that platform wasn’t as global and unedited in real time as the social media platforms that exist today. Muhammad’s protests were peaceful even though the Federal government stripped him of his livelihood, threatened him with prison and fined him thousands of dollars. Nothing and no one swayed Muhammad from his belief in his God given right to justice and to protest until the justice he sought was had.
If Muhammad were alive and well today, he would encourage peaceful protest but not protest that hurt or harmed people or property, no matter how frustrated or angry he became with government, city officials or the status quo. He would warn those who are peacefully protesting for real change to be smart, to be on guard and not allow their causes or protests be hijacked by others who might infiltrate and create violence and chaos where there is none. He would warn that you could become victim once again of those who would choose to use the cloak of righteous protests for their own selfish purposes. He would call for and demand from city governments, transparency of investigations, accountability and swift justice for the victims. More importantly, he would tell you to hold on to the frustration and anger you feel at this moment and carry that righteous protest to the ballot box. Finally, he would encourage you to vote in every township, city, county, state and general election. This is one of the most powerful ways to make your voice heard. Don’t let apathy keep you from participating in an election. Stand up and be counted.
Muhammad returned to Louisville for the last time on June 5, 2016 and was laid to rest on June 10th. From the moment he passed until the day he was laid to rest, Louisville opened its arms to family, friends and thousands and thousands of fans and visitors who came from all over the world to pay their last respects. The love, respect and compassion the entire City of Louisville gave to Muhammad, my family and the fans and visitors will never be forgotten and always will be appreciated by me and the entire Ali family.
The global spotlight was on the city that week and we showed the world just how great the City of Louisville and its citizens truly are. Don’t ever forget. Muhammad never did. That’s why he was introduced at almost every fight he fought as hailing from Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville was always the place he thought of as home and he loved the city until the day he died.
Truthfully, we have no choice but to get through this—whole and unified. I know Muhammad would want Louisville to shine the way, to be that beacon of light for the rest of the nation. This will mean the cooperation of city officials, religious and civic leaders, university and college presidents, community activist, business leaders and owners, law enforcement personnel and most importantly every citizen. It will require a commitment to work together, full transparency, honest dialogue, actionable and sustainable solutions, justice and hard work.
We have to be diligent and vigilant. Needless to say, we have learned the hard way, neither justice nor democracy can be taken for granted. Each of us is a catalyst for change—VOTE!
Photo by Neil Leifer.
“I hated every minute of training. But I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” – #MuhammadAli