I was in Denver, serving as CEO of the Democratic National Convention and as I was working on final preparations, my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t answer, but answer I did, rather absentmindedly, as I reviewed the stack of documents that were on my desk.
The voice on the other end introduced himself as a member of Muhammad Ali’s staff. That got my attention. Mr. Ali was interested in attending the Convention; could I help them make the appropriate arrangements? I immediately stood up. It just seemed like it was the right thing to do when talking to Mr. Ali, albeit through a staff person.
Of course I would help. I would be delighted to help. When we finished talking, I immediately called David Craig, the General Manager at Hotel Teatro, my favorite hotel in Denver. I knew that Craig and Teatro would take perfect and precise care of The Champ. Hotel accommodations arranged, I called in my team, gave them the news, and we turned attention to how we would ensure that Mr. Ali would have a stellar Convention experience.
The next couple of weeks flew by and the Convention began. I was sitting in my designated seat on the podium when my staff called. “Muhammad Ali is in the building and on his way to the box.” I could barely contain myself, and as I was reviewing program changes, all I could think was that Muhammad Ali was sitting in MY box. As soon as I could get away, I hightailed it up there. I opened the door and, instantly, I knew he had arrived because my other guests, celebrities in their own right, were mouths agape, my father was grinning from ear to ear, and my brother – who gets excited about nothing – was nearly jumping out of his skin.
I walked to the first row where Mr. Ali was seated with his wife, Lonnie. I knelt beside him and introduced myself to both of them. Lonnie was warm and kind and gracious. And Ali, he looked me in the eye, and moved his hand toward me – which I took in my own. Lonnie said, move closer. I did, and Mr. Ali kissed me on the cheek.
Well. The Convention could have ended right then. I was undone. And completely flustered. I babbled something about being a big fan and hoping that he was having a good experience at the Convention and how honored I was to host him in my box and that I hoped the hotel was okay and if there was anything he needed, just let me know and that I’d bought my dad a pair of his boxing gloves a couple of years earlier and, and, and, and … I’m sure he thought I was a complete idiot. But his eyes twinkled at me as I jabbered on and I was totally lost in his orbit.
I stayed with him as long as could … until duty called and my staff dragged me back to the podium.
The news of Ali’s passing took me back to that night. Ironically, I’m in Philadelphia now, serving as CEO of the 2016 Democratic Convention. Both Conventions are now forever marked by a memory of Ali. I’d hoped to have him as my guest again this year, and as I reflect on his life and legacy, I’ve pondered the impact he has had on me – especially since I’ve never been a boxing fan.
I was raised in a faith-filled, activist household. My dad, Reverend Herbert Daughtry, was the founding Chairman of the National Black United Front. I was surrounded and nurtured by a community that was unashamedly, unabashedly Black. Everything Black was beautiful in my world. That’s what I was taught, that’s what I was shown, and that’s what I believed. To be confident in one’s Blackness was no mean feat in a time when all the Barbies were white and all the villains wore black. The antidote was Muhammad Ali, unapologetically Black and totally defiant in his demand that you accept him, all of him. On his terms. By his definition. And that included his Blackness. Not quietly or meekly did he demand. No, he was in your face, challenging you, daring you, cajoling you. He wasn’t asking you; he was telling you. And his boldness emboldened the rest of us. Here, for all to see, was the heavyweight champion of the world saying loud, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” How could we not agree?
He used his well-earned platform to spotlight causes he believed in. It wasn’t just about fancy cars, flashy jewelry, and beautiful women – the trappings that usually consumed and silenced celebrity. There he was, the same man Black and proud, standing on principle and denouncing the Vietnam War even though his stance would put his career on hold during the prime of his life. Now I don’t confess to understand all his politics – after all, he did endorse Ronald Reagan in 1980 – but he had track record enough for me to accept and believe that his political positions were based on principle and not political expediency.
Mostly though, I appreciate Ali’s unwavering confidence, his bold defense of his personhood, his shameless promotion of his own talent and gifts, and his challenge to the world to accept him. I love that he knew he was the best, and more, I love that he put in the work to make his claim manifest. It wasn’t swagger for swagger’s sake. It wasn’t baseless braggadocio. It was truth. He had the audacity to declare himself The Greatest. And we believed him. Not because he said it, but because he proved it. In this, he challenges all of us, even today, to claim our gifts, to know our strengths, to walk in our power. To put in the work required to fulfill our dreams and our destiny. To never be confined or constrained by another person’s definition of us. And to demand that the world accept us just as God created us: full of vitality, life, purpose … and, of course, very, very pretty.
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