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Muhammad Ali, a giant who shaped and reflected his times

President Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to boxer Muhammad Ali in the East Room of the White House, on Nov. 9, 2005. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

The world will mourn and celebrate Muhammad Ali on Friday in a service he began planning years ago. The range of speakers reflects the amazing arc of his life.

There will be representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon and Islamic faiths. And former President Bill Clinton; comedian Billy Crystal; sportscaster Bryant Gumbel; Attallah Shabazz, the oldest daughter of Malcolm X; Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama; and Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican senator from Utah.

The varying perspectives no doubt will be astonishing. Ali was a prism who reflected back to each of us what we wanted to see.

He was a civil rights activist or an uppity black man. He was an Vietnam War protester or a draft dodger. He was the template of the modern athlete as part-sportsman and part-showman, or an egotist with a very big mouth. He was an ambassador to those around the world who are poor, oppressed and face physical and mental challenges. He was the face of the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, a progenitor of rap music and perhaps the best boxer who ever lived. He was the great-great-grandson of a slave, he was investigated by the FBI after joining the Nation of Islam, and he helped get 15 American hostages released from Iraq. He practiced violence in the ring and peace outside it. He was a gentle soul but cruel to boxing opponents.

How does one reconcile all that? Ali knew how he wanted to be seen. He asked in his memoir to be remembered as a boxing champ who was funny, who treated people right, who helped whomever he could and who stood up for his beliefs.

He wasn’t perfect, but he was all of that. And we paid attention. That’s the power of personality. Ali forced us to look at things a little differently.

It’s unfortunate that Parkinson’s also robbed America of his voice for so many years.

What would he have said about the debate over policing tactics and the shootings of unarmed black men? Or the disproportionate incarceration of blacks? Or moves to make voting more difficult, especially for people of color? Or continuing economic inequality? Or Donald Trump? What would the man who liked to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee have done with a Twitter account? Would he have laid down a track with Jay Z, who called Ali “my hero”? Would he have said our country changed in his lifetime?

Ali was 18 years old, still known by what he called his “slave name” of Cassius Clay, when he returned to Louisville with a gold medal from the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was celebrated by many in his hometown, but some publicly called him “the Olympic nigger.” So, yes, some things have changed, and Ali had a hand in that.

He questioned government, questioned power, acted in accordance with his conscience, and refused to be swayed from that. He comforted the afflicted and urged all of us to embrace what we have in common. To ask whether there will ever be another Muhammad Ali is to miss the point. He helped shape his times and was very much of his times.

As we listen to the testimony offered on Friday, we all should remember that perhaps Ali’s greatest legacy is that when he was needed, he both sounded and answered the call. — The editorial board