Attended by the National Muslim Business Council (NMBC)
By Walter Leavy
The phenomenal legacy of our beloved Muslim brother and world-champion boxer Muhammad Ali expands far beyond the boxing ring and continues to influence and inspire millions. His legacy has captured the imagination of those whose humanitarian efforts to promote peace, social justice, and human rights have significantly changed the lives of many people in diverse ways across the globe.
The incredible influence of Muhammad Ali, who was named a “Messenger of Peace” by the United Nations and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, was made evident recently at the third annual Muhammad Ali Awards in Louisville. Several individuals who have made a difference were honored for their transformational efforts to make the world a better place. Harry Belafonte, legendary entertainer and longtime advocate for social justice, was honored with the prestigious Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Lifetime Achievement. Academy Award winner Geena Davis who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, was honored as the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian of the Year. “There’s a little feeling like I’d much rather be giving Muhammad Ali an award after all that he’s done and what he means to all of us, but I’m thrilled,” Davis told Ali and the 1,000-plus event attendees.
The annual gala is the major annual fundraiser for the Muhammad Ali Center, and the charitable event places new focus on Ali’s belief that everyone can be great when it comes to promoting respect, hope, understanding and tolerance. “For decades, Muhammad has touched and impacted literally millions of people around the globe. In fact, we often say Muhammad ‘ignites a flame of inspiration in people’ to positively change and transform themselves, their communities and the world,” said Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali’s wife, co-founder, and vice chair of the Muhammad Ali Center. “[He’s] always courageous, forever inspiring and reminding all of us that by changing challenges into opportunities, we too can climb to great heights and discover our own inherent greatness.”
During the gala, there were many memorable and magical moments reflecting examples of that inherent greatness, but none perhaps as emotionally touching as the story of Rose Mapendo, recipient of the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award for Gender Equality. In accepting the award, her incredible strength and determination were highlighted. She talked about how she began a family at age 16 in the Democratic Republic of Congo before ethnic violence tragically changed her life in the 1990s. A series of events included the arrest of her entire family by government agents, the execution of her husband and the realization that she was pregnant with twins in captivity.
Her twin sons were born inside the prison in conditions that forced Mapendo to use her own hair to cut the umbilical cord. With incredible grace, she forgave those who caused such turmoil in her life and even named her twin sons after two of her jailers, an act of mercy that would lead to these same jailers disobeying orders and relocate, rather than kill her and her children. She explained her monumental acts of forgiveness by simply saying: “When I die, I don’t want anything to block my path to God.” Government intervention and negotiations resulted in Mapendo’s release and her eventual relocation to Phoenix, where she created the Rose Mapendo Foundation, a non-profit organization that is committed to empowering women and children around the world who have been the victims of violence. Further, she is now a global human rights activist who advocates forgiveness and reconciliation.
Mapendo continues to be an effective ambassador and role model, influencing today’s youth while, like Ali, “passing the torch” to the next generation that will continue to uphold The Muhammad Ali Foundation’s stated six core principles of Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality. Ali says the power of his influence will be measured by the ability to resonate with the younger generation. Proof that it already has is evident in six young adults, age 30 and under, who received awards for their efforts that reflect Ali’s principles: Kyla LaPointe, 24, of Bathurst, New Brunswick Cconfidence); Hadiga Bashir, 13, of Khyber Province of Pakistan (Conviction); Christopher Ategeka, 30, Uganda (Dedication); Veronika Scott, 26, Detroit (Giving); Sasha Fisher, 26, New York City (Respect); and Tanyella Evans, 28, Scotland/United States (Spirituality). They are indications in age and location of the reach and effectiveness of the philosophy associated with the Muhammad Ali Center.
While the mission of the Muhammad Ali Center is to preserve and share the legacy and ideals of Muhammad Ali, there are plans to expand the facility and create an area that will focus on everyday people who, like this year’s young honorees, make humanitarian contributions to promote peace, personal responsibility, hope and personal growth. Those efforts are reminiscent of Ali and in line with what “The Greatest” has said for years, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
More than 30 years after his 1981 retirement from the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali continues to be one of the most recognized Muslim Americans and most beloved individuals in the world, having established himself as a world champion global humanitarian to not only promote peace and harmony but to inspire people to do better for themselves.
That influential concept has gone beyond simply inspiring individuals and has led to the creation of organizations such as the National Muslim Business Council (NMBC), which is dedicated to educating Muslims and non-Muslims about business ownership and entrepreneurship. Since 2003 the NMBC, under the leadership of President David K. Hasan, has been instrumental in helping people around the country pursue their own passions and life purposes. Such examples prompt Ali to agree with wife Lonnie when she says: “True greatness is achieved when our own inherent potential is realized and, in turn, we use our talents and resources to inspire and encourage others to achieve their potential.”
For Ali, perhaps his greatest victory both inside and outside the ring is continuing to be a beacon of hope for millions of people around the world.
The Muhammad Ali Center, a 501(c)3 corporation, was co-founded by Muhammad Ali and his wife Lonnie in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The international cultural center promotes the six core principles of Muhammad Ali (Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality) in ways that inspire personal and global greatness and provides programming and events around the focus areas of education, gender equity, and global citizenship. Its newest initiative, Generation Ali, fosters a new generation of leaders to contribute positively to their communities and to change the world for the better. The Center’s headquarters also contains an award-winning museum experience. For more information, please visit www.alicenter.org
Photos by Bill Wine, originally published in The Voice-Tribune (local Louisville, KY magazine). Unless otherwise indicated.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942 and is considered among the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time. Even though he was a controversial person during his early career, he is now unanimously praised for he displayed in the ring plus the values he exemplified outside of it. Values such as religious freedom, racial justice and the triumph of principle over expedience. Muhammad Ali is one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years; he has been dubbed “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.