I'm old enough to remember a time when Muhammad Ali, who died overnight, was among the most despised men in America --- white America.
He was black, beautiful, powerful --- and eloquent. And when he returned to his hometown in Kentucky in 1960 with Olympic gold, his race remained a barrier to service in much of still-segregated America, including Louisville.
A few years later, he declined to submit to the military draft as a matter of conscience, was stripped of all his honors, even --- in 1967 --- sentenced to prison. Here's how he explained his decision.
With privileges restored some years later, he continued to fight physically; and when that was no longer possible, in the arenas of service and benevolence.
And, finally, he died an American icon --- illustrating the redemptive nature of character and time.
Here's what newsman Dan Rather had to say last night --- among my favorite tributes:
The world will never know another man quite like him, and his passing leaves our global community a little dimmer. My thoughts are with his family and friends.
For much of his later years, illness robbed us of the power of Ali's provocative voice. And time smoothed over the complexities of his younger self. In an age of growing intolerance it is important to remember that there was a time when the great Ali was also shunned on account of his activism, race and religion. Perhaps his ultimate acceptance and the message of unbending fairness that he embodied in life may be the final lesson he can bestow on us in death.
Ali was of another age, and yet he was ageless. The battles he fought in and out of the ring probably seem like ancient history to those who only know him through archival images and film. But for those of us who were lucky enough to witness him in his prime, his presence was unmistakable.
The sheer substance of his physique, the speed of his hands, and the effortless fluency of his mind and speech seemed otherworldly, and indeed they were. They could not be ignored, even as they challenged the injustices of America's self-identity. We are a strong enough nation that we can learn from worthy criticism, and we should never try to silence voices of dissent like his.
Our world is a better place for Ali having graced us with his dauntless spirit. It is a spirit that now belongs to the ages. May he rest in peace.