The selection of Muhammad Ali, the boxing icon, as recipient of the 2012 Liberty Medal has prompted protest in some circles, but the criticism is unwarranted. Ali, in fact, is an inspired choice for the award, which is bestowed on an individual who exemplifies the ideals and principles contained in the U.S. Constitution.
Those who question the choice of Ali no doubt remember that he refused — on religious principles — to be inducted in the military during the Vietnam War. They should remember the aftermath as well.
Ali was charged with draft evasion and convicted. He fought the conviction and ultimately he was vindicated. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor. Still, he paid dearly for his principles.
He lost his heavyweight crown and was unable to fight for years. When he regained his boxing license, Ali regained his championship, defended it in several legendary bouts and became perhaps the most well-known athlete in the world. His skill in the ring, his love of life, his concern for the oppressed and disenfranchised, and his way with a phrase — remember "floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee" — endeared him to tens of millions.
Ali's stature has continued to grow since he retired from boxing in 1981. If anything, he's more famous now than in his boxing heyday. Until the ravages of disease curtailed his public appearances, he regularly traversed the globe on humanitarian and other missions. His infectious spirit, those closest to him say, remains intact even though his speech and movements are now severely impacted by disease. Today, he is far more than a sports icon; he is a source of inspiration to all.
Ali is remembered and celebrated for many reasons these days, but the most important should be his continued embrace and espousal of the doctrines enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — personal freedom, equality and self-government. That is what makes Ali, already a holder of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a proper and highly qualified recipient of the 2012 Liberty Medal.
The medal, established in 1988 to celebrate the bicentennial of the Constitution, is presented annually by the National Constitution Center. It quickly has become an award of international prominence that is presented to individuals without regard to political, social or ideological background. It is an eclectic and accomplished group. Six of the awardees also are Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, Bono, Kofi Annan, U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, Thurgood Marshall, Lech Walesa and Sandra Day O'Connor. Many Liberty Medal holders will attend the September ceremony in Philadelphia that will celebrate the life and achievements of Ali, whose words and deeds make him worthy of membership in a company for which the championing of liberty is essential to membership.