Bill Clinton – Muhammad Ali Public Memorial Address
Address at the Muhammad Ali Memorial Service
delivered 10 June 2016, KFC YUM! Center, Louisville, Kentucky
First, Lonnie, I thank you and the members of the family for telling me that he actually — as Bryant [Gumbel] said — picked us all to speak and giving me a chance to come here. I thank you for what you did to make the second half of his life greater than the first. I think you for the Muhammad Ali Center and what it has come to represent to so many people.
Here’s what I’d like to say. I’ve spent a lot of time now, as I get older and older and older, trying to figure out what makes people tick. How do they turn out the way they are? How do some people refuse to become victims and rise from every defeat.
We’ve all seen the beautiful pictures of the home Muhammad Ali was a boy in, and people visiting and driving by.
I think he decided something I hope every young person here will decide. I think he decided very young to write his own life story.
I think he decided before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided that he would not be ever disempowered.
He decided that not his race, nor his place, not the expectations of others — positive, negative, or otherwise — would strip from him the power to write his own story.
He decided first to use these stunning gifts — his strength and speed in the ring, his wit and way with words in managing the public, and his mind and heart — to figure out at a fairly young age who he was, what he believed, and how to live with the consequences of acting on what he believed. A lot of people make it two steps one and two and still just can’t quite manage living with the consequences of what he believes.
For the longest time, in spite of all the wonderful things that have been said here, I remember thinking when I was a kid — this guy is so smart. And he never got credit for being as smart as he was. And then, I don’t think he ever got the credit for being, until later, as wise as he was.
In the end, besides being a lot of fun to be around and basically a universal soldier for our common humanity, I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith; and being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson’s could come along, but being free he realized that life still was open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today in honor and love.
And the only other thing I’d like to say I think we all need to really, really think about. The first part of his life was dominated by the triumph of his truly unique gifts. We should never forget them. We should never stop looking at the movies [of/about him]. We should thank Will Smith for making his movie. We should all be thrilled — it was a thing of beauty.
But the second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept in prison in South Africa. That is, in the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have. Every single solitary one of us have [sic] gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them — in ways large and small.
I’ll never forget, I asked Lonnie if she remembered a time when they were still living in Michigan and I gave a speech in Southwest Michigan. There’s an economic club there and it’s sort of a ritual when a President leaves office — you have to get reacclimated; nobody plays a song when you walk in a room anymore; you don’t really know what you’re supposed to do. And this club, there, it’s called the Economic Club, I think. They’re used to acting like you still deserve to be listened to and you got to get reacclimated.
So they came to dinner and they sat with me at this dinner. And he knew, somehow he knew that I was a little off my feet that night. I was trying to imagine how to make this new life, and so he told me a really bad joke. And he told it so well and he laughed so hard that I totally got over it and had a great time. He had that feel — you know there’s no textbook for that, knowing where somebody else is in their head, picking up the body language.
Then, Lonnie and Muhammad got me to come here when we had the dedication of the Muhammad Ali Center, and I was trying to be incredibly old, gray haired, elderly statesman, dignified.
I’ve got to elevate this guy — so I’m saying all this stuff in very high toned language and Muhammad sneaks up behind me and puts his fingers up [behind my head.]
Finally, after all the years that we’d been friends, my enduring image of him is like a little reel in three shots:  the boxer I thrilled to as a boy;  the man I watched take the last steps to light the Olympic Flame when I was President.
And I’ll never forget it. I was sitting there in Atlanta. By then we knew each other. By then I felt I had some sense of what he was living with. And I was still weeping like a baby, seeing his hands shake and his legs shake and knowing by God he was going to make those last few steps. No matter what it took, the flame would be lit; the fight would be won; the spirit would be affirmed. I knew it would happen.
And then this : the children whose lives he touched; the young people he inspired. It’s the most important thing of all. So I ask you to remember that.
We all have an Ali story. It’s the gifts we all have that should be most honored today, because he released them to the world, never wasting a day — that the rest of us could see anyway — feeling sorry for himself that he had Parkinson’s. Knowing that more than three decades of his life would be circumscribed in ways that would be chilling to the naked eye, but with a free spirit, it made his life bigger not smaller; because other people, all of us unlettered, unschooled, in the unleashing said, “Well would you look at that look at that. Look at that. [He] may not be able to run across the ring anymore, may not be able to dodge everybody and exhaust everybody anymore, and he’s bigger than ever, because he is a free man of faith, sharing the gifts we all have.
We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world as he did.
God bless you, my friend.
Go in peace.
Audio Source: C-SPAN.org
Page Updated: 8/12/17
U.S. Copyright Status: Text and Image #1 and #2 (Screenshot) = Uncertain. Audio = Property of AmericanRhetoric.com.
I can just hear Muhammad saying now, “Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one President. And by making you last in a long, long, long, long line I guaranteed you a standing ovation.”
I’m trying to think of what has been left unsaid.