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January 18, 2006

Your Weekly Reeder

Bush’s ignoring of Ali Center wasn’t conscientious
When President George W. Bush came to Louisville on Wednesday to speak about the war on international terrorism, you have to wonder why he didn’t pick the Muhammad Ali Learning Center and Museum as his venue instead of the Kentucky International Convention Center.

Located downtown on the banks of the Ohio River, the Ali Center is only a five-iron from the KICC. It honors the native Louisvillian who became one of the most famous humans on the planet by practicing violence (as heavyweight boxing champion) to promote peace, understanding and equality.

The Ali Center’s backers see it as far more than a tourist attraction. Mainly, they hope it will be an extension of the United Nations, a place where international leaders can gather to work out their racial, religious, cultural, economic, political and territorial differences.

In other words, the Ali Center will be very big on conflict resolution.
Yet President Bush blew it off in favor of a state-owned facility of the sort that can be found in any fair-sized city in the nation.

Why?

Well, it couldn’t be because he isn’t aware of the Ali Center’s presence. Surely the topic came up on Nov. 9, when Bush presented Ali and 12 others with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. That was only 10 days before the Center’s official grand opening.

The President declined an invitation to attend the Ali Center gala, opening the way for his predecessor, Bill Clinton, to show up and score some points with the African-American community on behalf of the Democratic Party and his wife, a possible Presidential candidate in 2008.

But if that was a political mistake, the President certainly could have overcome it by using the Ali Center to talk about the war on international terrorism. Isn’t providing such a forum one of the main reasons the Ali Center was built? So why wouldn’t the President not want to honor one of his recent Medal of Freedom winners?

Hmmm.

It couldn’t be because the Ali Center hasn’t been completed or doesn’t have large enough facilities to accommodate a Presidential address. The Center has been open for tourists for nearly two months and its auditorium is more than adequate for a staged event where the audience is limited and screened. It’s not Southeast Christian big, understand, but it is adequate for a choreographed show.

Maybe it’s that pesky religious business.

Many Christian fundamentalists will never forgive Ali for renouncing his given name, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., and Baptist upbringing. Although that made him an international icon to Muslims and people of color, he became equally reviled by the same crowd that today is hell-bent on hanging the Ten Commandments in public schools and equating “intelligent design” (is that a gross misnomer or what?) with Darwin’s theory of evolution.

We’re talking here about the Republican base, folks. They would just as soon attend a Ted Kennedy fund-raiser as entertain the idea of President Bush talking about terrorism in Ali’s Temple of Conflict Resolution.

The President knows that. He also knows that an appearance in the Ali Center might dredge up some questions about draft-dodging that he would rather avoid.

On April 27, 1967, Ali refused to step forward and accept induction in the U.S. Army on the grounds that he opposed the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War on moral and religious grounds. He claimed conscientious objector status. Or, as he succinctly put it, “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Cong.”

That was the moment when Ali transcended his status as heavyweight champion and began down the path that led to the opening of the Ali Center. His act of defiance galvanized the anti-war movement, much as war mom Cindy Sheehan and U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) have done with the war in Iraq.

But Ali’s refusal to be drafted also guaranteed that much of white America would consider him to be little more than a coward and a draft-dodger. To this day, instead of acknowledging him as a man of peace, they revile him as a traitor. In fact, many of the Ali-bashers belong to Bush’s ultra-conservative base.

Only a year or so after Ali refused to be inducted, George W. Bush graduated from Yale and joined the Texas Air National Guard. As Dan Rather well knows, Bush’s military record is murky, at best. It can be reasonably assumed that, like Ali, young W. had nothing against “them Cong.” Luckily for him, he had an alternative to being drafted, and the hell with noblesse oblige.

When the former National Guard pilot presented the world’s best-known conscientious objector (the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Ali’s favor) with the Medal of Freedom, you could almost hear Bush supporters squirming uncomfortably and muttering under their breaths.

What in the name of Richard Nixon was going on? Who could ever have imagined such a thing in the 1960s? And it begs a question that the Bush administration can’t even contemplate: Will the day come, decades from now, when a U.S. President presents Cindy Sheehan with the Medal of Freedom?

Were Ali politically active today, instead of silenced by the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, he surely would be railing against America’s invasion of Iraq. As was the case with Vietnam, the soldiers in the field come from the nation’s lower socio-economic levels. Poor people from here and poor people from there killing each other because of America’s need for oil.

That’s the way Ali would see it. Sure, it is. He probably would have boycotted the Medal of Freedom ceremony.

Sadly, the Ali of today bears only a faint resemblance to the young firebrand who inspired millions around the world. He has been silent about Iraq, at least partly because Lonnie, his wife and caretaker, has sold him out to Corporate America. Check the list of contributors to the Ali Center. Heck, W. and Ali are as close today, philosophically, as they were far apart in 1968.

Listen to the Ali of those days:

“I could make millions if I led my people the wrong way, to something I know is wrong. So now I have to make a decision: Step into a billion dollars and denounce my people, or step into poverty and teach them the truth? Damn the money. Damn the heavyweight championship. I will die before I sell out my people for the white man’s money. The wealth of America and the friendship of all the people who support the war would be nothing if I’m not content internally and if I’m not in accord with the will of Almighty Allah.”

Who could blame the President for wanting to avoid those sort of ghosts and echoes? They resonate throughout the Ali Center as a rebuke to the warmongers and their supporters. They speak to the soul. They beg for conflict resolution.

Too bad the President ignored the Ali Center.

Maybe next time.

Billy Reed was on the Ali Center board for a year, from 2000-2001.