President Obama's Muhammad Ali Tribute Is A Stirring Reminder Of His Place In American History

On Friday, legendary boxer, activist, and social justice hero Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. Widely regarded as the most dominant and politically influential athlete of his era, as well as the hands-down greatest boxer of all time, Ali's death has sparked countless tributes and outpourings. And on Saturday, the President of the United States followed suit ― you should read President Obama's Muhammad Ali tribute, because it's a strong, eloquent piece of remembrance.

Considering just how violently the American government disdained and feared Ali in his prime, throughout the Vietnam-era years of the 1960s and early 1970s, it can't be sold short just how remarkable it is to read this memorial from a sitting president, no less our first black president. It's inspirational in it's own way, but it also speaks to the importance of never forgetting Ali's full history. As The Nation's Dave Zirin noted on Saturday, Ali's moral force and unapologetic opposition to the Vietnam War were incredibly dangerous to the U.S. government and the status quo of the day, and it tried to threaten him through imprisonment and surveillance.

But now, all these decades later, his death is being mourned all around the world. Here's the full statement put out by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on Saturday ― it's a fittingly beautiful tribute, and it's most definitely worth your time.

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Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d “handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail.”

But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing.

Like everyone else on the planet, Michelle and I mourn his passing. But we’re also grateful to God for how fortunate we are to have known him, if just for a while; for how fortunate we all are that The Greatest chose to grace our time.

In my private study, just off the Oval Office, I keep a pair of his gloves on display, just under that iconic photograph of him – the young champ, just 22 years old, roaring like a lion over a fallen Sonny Liston. I was too young when it was taken to understand who he was – still Cassius Clay, already an Olympic Gold Medal winner, yet to set out on a spiritual journey that would lead him to his Muslim faith, exile him at the peak of his power, and set the stage for his return to greatness with a name as familiar to the downtrodden in the slums of Southeast Asia and the villages of Africa as it was to cheering crowds in Madison Square Garden.

“I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”

That’s the Ali I came to know as I came of age – not just as skilled a poet on the mic as he was a fighter in the ring, but a man who fought for what was right. A man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.

He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words, and full of contradictions as his faith evolved. But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes – maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves. Later, as his physical powers ebbed, he became an even more powerful force for peace and reconciliation around the world. We saw a man who said he was so mean he’d make medicine sick reveal a soft spot, visiting children with illness and disability around the world, telling them they, too, could become the greatest. We watched a hero light a torch, and fight his greatest fight of all on the world stage once again; a battle against the disease that ravaged his body, but couldn’t take the spark from his eyes.

Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it. Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to his family, and we pray that the greatest fighter of them all finally rests in peace.

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The statement shies away from approaching Ali's near-imprisonment quite as forwardly as it could ― notably, his opposition to the Vietnam war, the circumstances of his draft evasion conviction, and the spying conducted on him by governmental agencies like the FBI and NSA go more or less wholly overlooked. In fact, the word "Vietnam" isn't mentioned once.

But it does speak of Ali's legacy without avoiding or diminishing his brash courage, his defiance of suspect authority, and his joyfulness. In particular, it quotes Ali declaring "I am America," proudly asserting his Muslim faith, his unwavering confidence, and his blackness before telling the country to "get used to me." There's no word yet whether the Obamas will attend the public memorial services for Ali, which will be held on Friday, June 10th, in the late champ's home city of Louisville, Kentucky. Former president Bill Clinton, however, will reportedly be in attendance.