Muhammad Ali, former boxing world heavyweight title holder, was awarded for his humanitarian efforts and work for civil rights at a special ceremony in Philadelphia on Thursday.
The $100,000 award, called the Liberty Medal, is sponsored by the National Constitution Center, a non-profit devoted to the U.S. Constitution. The medal was presented to the boxing great by his daughter, former professional boxer Laila Ali. She was joined by 2012 Olympic medalist boxer Claressa Shields, the first American woman pugilist to win gold and Susan Francia, who also won a 2012 Olympic gold as part of the U.S. rowing team.
Muhammad Ali, 70, a once loquacious boxer who proclaimed himself “the double greatest” but who has been silenced by a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, was honored as an icon of constitutional ideals and the American dream.
The center described him as “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 tireless humanitarian and philanthropist.”
The 2012 Liberty Medal award ceremony was part of the 225th Anniversary of the center. An annual award, it was established in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.
Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, did not make any remarks after receiving the award. He did manage to wave at the crowds and appeared to examine the medal around his neck.
But Lonnie Ali, his wife, addressed the audience on his behalf.
“On behalf of Muhammad, let me sincerely state how incredibly honoured he is to be here this evening, as the recipient of the Liberty Medal. 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.” This is indeed the case, all he did was stand up for what he believed,” Lonnie said.
The Olympic gold medalist and boxing legend developed a reputation for being an outspoken fighter for religious and civil rights. In 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces due to his religious beliefs that denounced violence.
He was arrested, fined, stripped of his boxing license and title and found guilty of draft evasion. The battle went all the way to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision in 1971, ruling that his refusal stemmed from constitutionally protected rights. Ali regained his title in 1974 and retired in 1981.
Laila Ali spoke eloquently about how she realized as a little girl that her father was meant to be shared with the world.
“Honestly the first thing I think of is just how I shared my father with the world. My father loves people and people love my father, and I learnt that at a very young age, as people would always come up to him no matter where we went. And my father has always lived his life to make this world better for others. He’s strong, he's courageous, such a powerful man,” she said.
Apart from Laila and Lonnie, also standing next to Muhammad Ali on stage and giving him support was his sister-in-law Marilyn Williams.
The evening event included an address by Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard who spoke about the importance of liberty, as outlined in the American constitution. It ended with musician Roberta Flack performing “Impossible Dream”.