Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was recognized as a champion of freedom on Thursday night at the National Constitution Center’s 2012 Liberty Medal ceremony.
The event served as the centerpiece for the national celebration of the U.S. Constitution’s 225th anniversary.
The Liberty Medal was established in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. The award is given annually. The medal honors men and women of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe.
“When I think of my dad, I don’t think athlete,” said a former professional boxer and Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila. “My dad … I put him on such a high pedestal as a man. I’m just so proud of him. He’s done everything he stood for and basically just standing for what you believe in. I’m very happy and honored to be here to present the award.”
Ali has long served as an icon of constitutional ideals and the realization of the American dream – all the while challenging and expanding the very definition of “We the People.” The Olympic gold medalist and boxing legend has been an outspoken fighter for religious and civil rights; a conscientious objector who took his battle to the Supreme Court and won; an ambassador for peace and justice worldwide; and a timeless humanitarian and philanthropist.
“On behalf of Muhammad, let me sincerely state how incredibly honored he is to be here this evening, as the recipient of the Liberty Medal,” said Lonnie Ali, wife of Muhammad Ali. She delivered the acceptance speech on his behalf. “It is to be honest—overwhelming, especially given the remarkable group of people who have previously been the recipient of the prestigious award. It is especially humbling for Muhammad, who has said on many occasions, “All I did was stand up for what I believe.”
In 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces due to his religious beliefs. As a result, he was arrested, fined, stripped of his boxing license and title.
Though Ali was prepared to pay the price for his convictions, the Supreme Court reversed the decision in 1971, ruling that his refusal stemmed from his constitutionally protected religious beliefs. Ali regained his title in 1974 and retired from the ring in 1981.
He has since devoted his life to helping promote world peace and other humanitarian efforts. His work as an ambassador for peace began in 1985, when he flew to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. Ali also has made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea; delivered more than $1 million in medical aid to Cuba.
In 2005, Ali and Lonnie opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. The Ali Center is a museum and educational edifice that inspires young people and adults. Dikembe Mutombo, former NBA star, and National Constitution Center Trustee, talked about the impact Ali had on his life.
“He’s a great legend,” he said. “He’s someone who has a huge impact on society. He believes in so many things we stand for and what we want this world to become. He has inspired so many young people including myself. I’m just so glad to be here with his wife and daughter and family to share this moment with them.”
Thursday evening’s Liberty Medal ceremony marked Ali’s return to the National Constitution Center. He participated in a special Flag Day ceremony on June 14, 2003 – just before the center’s official opening. In fact, he was the first to raise the American flag that hangs in the Grand Hall Overlook and had previously flown over every state and territory capitol.
Other celebrities at the event Thursday night included Olympic gold medalists Claressa Shields and Susan Francia who joined Laila Ali in presenting the Liberty Medal to Muhammad Ali. Shields became the first American women to win a boxing gold medal at the Olympics. Francia is a two-time Olympic champion and five-time world champion rower from Penn. In addition, Academy Award-nominated actor Terrence Howard, who played Ali in the ABC biopic “Muhammad Ali: King of the World,” Joe Louis Barrow, II, son of professional boxer Joe Louis and Grammy Award winning singer Roberta Flack, Pennsylvania governor Thomas W. Corbett and Philadelphia mayor Michael A. Nutter attended the ceremony.
Ali turned 70-years-old this year. He has continued to break new ground as an advocate for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a disease he has battled since 1982. He’s a man who continues to make a difference in the lives of so many people.
“Ali was reason why I got into boxing,” said Tyrell Biggs, an Olympic gold medalist and former professional boxer who also played basketball at West Philadelphia High School. He provided a video tribute to him at the ceremony. “He was so confident. I think to see him do all the things that he’s done has made me a better person.”