early 1968 Muhamnmad Ali was the most famous man in the world. He was
twenty-six years old. He was the greatest fighter of his era, and
perhaps, as he put it, “Of all time!” And he was the
face of black opposition to the war in Vietnam. A year earlier Ali
refused to be drafted, saying he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong,
the guerrillas who were trying to overthrow the government of South
not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor
nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of
the darker people the world over,” he said.
appeal to be granted conscientious objector status was denied and he
was sent a draft notice. He refused to take the oath. It cost him his
World Heavyweight title and in 1967 he was banned from boxing.
here he was, sitting across the newsroom from me at WWDC, a radio
station in Washington, waiting to appear on a late-night talk show.
He could have sat anywhere he wanted. There were more comfortable
chairs available. But he sat at a desk, quiet, well-mannered,
respectful, well-dressed in a suit, white shirt bow tie. The picture
of a fine young man.
bombastic outbursts had given him a public image as a loudmouth. His
“I am the greatest!” statements had imprinted on the
world an Ali that was in-your-face, aggressive and angry. On
television he appeared to be ready to jump through the screen and
stand in victory over his victim, much like the photo of him standing
over a vanquished Sonny Liston, one of the most famous photos in
was a follower of the Nation of Islam and, to white eyes, the
infamous Honorable Ilija Muhammad, their leader. Black Muslims, as
they were known, were linked, fairly or unfairly, to the murder of
Malcolm X. They were seen as dangerous. That night Ali did not appear
to be dangerous.
a twenty-four year old white guy, was sitting at my desk, typing my
final newscast of the night, the newscast that would precede Ali’s
appearance on the talk show. I couldn’t believe I was sitting
across from him and I could not believe how quiet and wholesome he
appeared. He looked at me with kind eyes and smiled. He doodled on a
3x5 card he had found on the desk.
I stood up to go into the studio to do the news he was called into
the talk show studio, so we stood together for a moment. He handed me
the 3x5 card and said, “This is for you.” It was a pencil
drawing of mountains topped by the Muslim quarter-moon and it was
signed, “Muhammad All.” I probably had the same
expression on my face as the kid in the famous Coke commercial who
gets a jersey from Mean Joe Green.
put the card in my pocket and made plans to have it framed. I took it
home and put it “some place safe.” I never saw it again.
I have no idea what happened to it. Over the years I’ve thought
about it every time Ali was in the news and I have never stopped
grieving for it.
came back into the boxing world and won his title back. He became an
international ambassador of good will. He became an icon the world
over and a national treasure. He was one of the most beloved
Americans in history, honored by people of all colors and creeds.
for one small moment he looked me in the eye in a quiet newsroom and
said, “This is for you.” Thank you Ali, and Godspeed.