- Good evening and welcome to our third event in our discussion series, "Conversations on Muhammad Ali," presented by PBS and ESPN's "The Undefeated."
I'm Sylvia Bugg, Chief Programming Executive at PBS.
This September, PBS is delighted to present the latest from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon and their team, a four-part documentary series on the global icon, Muhammad Ali.
Tonight, we continue our examination of the complex life of one of America's greatest figures of the 20th century.
He entered the public arena and was known as Cassius Clay, but his Muslim faith and loyalty to the Nation of Islam inspired him to change his name to Muhammad Ali.
Though he openly admitted he was not perfect at living out the tenets of the Islamic faith, the influence of the powerful Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad, and his friend, Malcolm X, deeply shaped his worldview, which was not often understood by the American public at the time.
Tonight's discussion will explore the interwoven nature of race and religion in Muhammad Ali's own life and its impact on sports, society, and culture today.
Joining Ken Burns tonight are Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and change agent, Sherman Jackson, King Faisal Chair of Islamic Thought and Culture at the University of Southern California, and Justin Tinsley, ESPN and "The Undefeated" senior writer who will moderate the conversation.
Before we begin tonight's discussion, let's take a look at the introduction to the film.
Thank you for joining us this evening and don't forget to tune in to the premiere of "Muhammad Ali" on September 19th at 8:00 PM Eastern time on PBS.
- You want some breakfast?
- I want some cornflakes.
- Can I have some of your cornflakes?
Oh, I don't want none.
I won't take none, I won't take none.
I won't eat none if you don't want me to.
Ooh, look at that pretty horsey.
- Is that a white horse?
No, stand up, look over there.
Stand up, you gotta stand up, over them hills.
See the big one, there he is.
(child gasping) What?
(man laughing) Where's the love?
(crowd cheering and chanting) - My earliest memories that I can think of as a child with my father are walking through airports and being in crowds and feeling the vibrations of people's clapping and shouts in my chest.
And just looking at my dad, you know, like, "Who is this person?"
And it was all the time, anywhere we went.
"You're the greatest, we love you!"
And the clapping and "Muhammad."
(Ali and crowd speaking in foreign language) - [Hana] I loved feeling all the energy and the love that he felt.
(crowd chanting) - We now think of Muhammad Ali as this vulnerable guy lighting the torch in Atlanta and everybody on the globe loves him.
Black people like him, white people, he's a universal hero, almost in a religious way, like the Buddha, but when he was in the midst of his career, and not just in the early bit, he was incredibly divisive.
- Boo, yell, scream, throw peanuts, but whatever you do, pay to get in.
- People hated him, whether it was along racial lines, class lines, Vietnam lines, political lines, religious lines, or they just couldn't stand him.
And people of course said the opposite.
And this was, "I loved him, loved him."
("Freedom" by Beyonce playing) But he had an opinion about it.
- I ain't scared to do battle.
It would take a good man to whoop me!
You can look at me.
I'm more than just confident.
I can't be beat!
(indistinct) And I'm pretty as hell.
Look how pretty I am.
(crowd laughing) My honed, trimmed legs and my beautiful arms and my pretty nose and mouth.
I know I'm a pretty man.
I know I'm pretty.
You don't have to tell me I'm pretty.
Never talk about who's gonna stop me.
Ain't nobody gonna stop me!
I say what I wanna say.
Ain't no more big niggas talking like this.
(dynamic music continuing) - He was a pioneer.
He was a revolutionary.
He was a ground-breaker, a guy known simply as "the greatest."
- I am the greatest!
I've wrestled with alligators, I've tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lighting and put thunder in jail.
You know I'm bad.
I can drown the drink of water and kill a dead tree.
This will be no contest!
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.
- To have that chutzpah and to be a Black man in America was just outlandish.
- Muhammad means "worthy of all praises" and Ali means "most high."
And I just don't think I should go 10,000 miles and shoot some Black people who never called me "nigger."
I just can't shoot 'em.
I always wondered why Miss America was always white.
Santa Claus was white.
White Swan soap, King White soap.
White Cloud tissue paper.
And everything bad was black.
Black cat was the bad luck.
And if I threaten you, I'm gonna blackmail you.
(audience laughing) I said, "Mama, why don't they call it whitemail?
They lie too."
- I loved being around him.
I love being around Muhammad Ali.
- [Ali] You gonna float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.
- Rumble, young man, rumble.
("Freedom" resuming) - The price of freedom comes high.
I have paid, but I am free.
♪ Freedom, freedom, I can't move ♪ ♪ Freedom, cut me loose ♪ ♪ Freedom, freedom, where are you ♪ ♪ 'Cause I need freedom too ♪ ♪ I break chains all by myself ♪ ♪ Won't let my freedom rot in hell ♪ ♪ Hey ♪ ♪ I'ma keep running ♪ ♪ 'Cause a winner don't quit on themselves ♪ (sound of blows landing) (upbeat R&B music) - [Narrator] He called himself "the greatest" and then proved it to the entire world.
He was a master at what is called the sweet science, the brutal and sometimes beautiful art of boxing.
Heavyweight champion at just 22 years old, he wrote his own rules in the ring and in his life.
Infuriating his critics, baffling his opponents, and riveting millions of fans.
At the height of the civil rights movement, he joined a separatist religious sect whose leader would, for a time, dominate both his personal life and his boxing career.
He spoke his mind and stood on principle, even when it cost him his livelihood.
He redefined Black manhood, yet belittled his greatest rival using the racist language of the Jim Crow South in which he had been raised.
Banished for his beliefs, he returned to boxing an underdog, reclaimed his title twice and became the most famous man on earth.
He craved adulation his whole life, seeking crowds on street corners, in hotel lobbies, on airport tarmacs everywhere he went, and reveled in the uninhibited joy he brought each adoring fan.
He earned a massive fortune, spent it freely and gave generously to family, friends, even strangers, anyone in need.
Service to others, he often said, is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.
Even after his body began to betray him and his brain had absorbed too many blows, he fought on, unable to go without the attention and drama that accompanied each bout.
Later, slowed and silenced by a cruel and crippling disease, he found refuge in his faith, becoming a symbol of peace and hope on every continent.
Muhammad Ali was, the novelist Norman Mailer wrote, the very spirit of the 20th century.
- I'm always gonna be one Black one who got big on your white televisions, on your white newspapers, on your satellites, million-dollar checks, and still look you in your face and tell you the truth and 100% stay with and represent my people and not leave 'em and sell 'em out because I'm rich.
And stay with 'em, that was my purpose.
I'm here and I'm showing the world that you can be here and still free and stay yourself and get respect from the world.
(bell dinging) - Good evening, everyone.
Good evening, everyone.
My name is Justin Tinsley, a senior sports and culture reporter with ESPN's "The Undefeated," and to say I'm excited for this evening's event would be an understatement.
It would be like saying Muhammad Ali was shy and he bit his tongue and he didn't wanna speak.
That just wouldn't be true.
But what is true is that for the next hour or so, we're gonna be speaking about the man who called himself "the greatest" even before he knew he was.
And that would be Muhammad Ali, of course.
(chuckling) Now over the summer, my colleagues, Jesse Washington and Lonnae O'Neill, they've helped moderate discussions about this truly, truly, truly, and I can't say this enough, this truly phenomenal documentary entitled "Muhammad Ali" which will be airing on PBS on September 19th.
Now, I made a vow to myself that I would do a lot more listening than I would talking.
So I'm about to shut up, but I'd like to introduce our esteemed panel for this discussion today on Muhammad Ali, race and religion that's brought to you by PBS and "The Undefeated."
Now, first up, I wanna introduce the director, Ken Burns.
He's the man behind some of the most phenomenal and thrilling documentaries that you're ever gonna see on topics like Jackie Robinson or the Central Park Five and the Vietnam War.
And for my book, he's one of the best storytellers of my lifetime.
I also wanna say that Sarah Burns and David McMahon were co-writers and co-directors of this film.
So Ken, thank you so much for having me be a part of this, and thank you so much for speaking for this.
- Justin, it's such a great pleasure to be with you.
We're so grateful to ESPN and "The Undefeated" that we've been able to have the third of what will be four conversations about this extraordinary human being, Muhammad Ali, and on behalf of Sarah and Dave, who are equally the co-directors and they are the two writers, so I'll be the flack, the publicity guy for them tonight.
- I'd say you'd be really good in that role.
Next up, I have the honor and the true privilege of introducing Ibtihaj Muhammad, she's an Olympic medalist in fencing, and she became the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab during the Olympics.
But I've been a big fan of her for years, and every interview I've seen has just been a masterclass in personality, nuance and perspective.
And I'm not even saying this 'cause she's sitting here right now, but she's as deserving of Time Magazine's "100 most influential people in the world" as anybody that you'll ever meet.
She's an author, she's a change agent and she's always speaking truth to power.
Ibtihaj, thank you so much for joining us.
- Thanks for having me.
And next up we have Professor Sherman Jackson.
He's the King Faisal Chair of Islamic thought and culture at USC.
That's Southern California, not South Carolina.
And he's been featured in the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
And Dr. Jackson has been listed as among the 10 most foremost experts on Islam in America.
And though he may not be able to put this on his LinkedIn, he's definitely one of my favorite voices in this episode.
So Professor Jackson, thank you so much for joining us.
- Thank you very much for having me.
Thank you for the kind words.
- Oh, no.
Look, the pleasure is all mine.
So I wanna get right into the discussion.
I wanna ask each of you a question before we keep moving on.
So Ken, I'll start with you.
Muhammad Ali, he's remembered for a lot of things, of course, but his boxing career is perhaps what he's most known for.
But this episode in particular, it focuses on the role of race and religion in his life.
And what makes that so important when describing who Muhammad Ali is, aside from his boxing career, and in some ways it may be even more important than that.
- Thank you, Justin.
There's a really wonderful moment towards the end of the film, the end of the fourth episode, when one of his daughters, Rashida, pinches her fingers together and said, "Boxing was only this much."
Now, of course, this is the story of a boxer, that was his job, but she's implying that it could have been something else.
He could have been as simple carpenter, for example.
And we know in history, the fates of simple carpenters.
She was essentially alluding to or reflecting back on what our whole effort has been, which was to put him in a much larger context than the boxing world.
The context of his personal life, his birth in segregated Jim Crow Louisville, Kentucky, his childhood there, good and bad.
Obviously the boxing part of it, the political parts of it.
But really what we see is, this is a journey of faith.
This is the awakening of a young man beset by the indignities of Jim Crow in the United States of America and looking for solutions and answers.
And he finds that in the Nation of Islam and he grows.
And I think too often, we talk about the Nation of Islam as a political choice and it's because he's a Black man saying no to the Vietnam War, but it's more than that.
And it's evolving.
It's never constant, it's never fixed.
And so I think that accompanying all of the outer, more familiar biographical stuff is a much more difficult to explicate and contradictory at times and controversial at times adherence to the faith of this cult, which bears essentially very little to Islam, but is motivating him and enlarging his understanding so that by the end of his life, it has reached that kind of place.
I think it's central to this story and it's central to understanding him.
He's crossing all the intersections of the late 20th century with regard to sports, the role of sports in society, the role of Black athletes, he's redefining Black manhood.
It's obviously intersecting with the civil rights movement.
It's also about politics and war.
And yet it's also about faith and it's about Islam and that's an important thing, and I think a glue that holds the larger, more complex biography together.
And we were excited to be able to try to integrate that into this complicated narrative about one of the most spectacularly wonderful, complicated humans, as American as anybody I've ever come across in my 50 years of doing this.
Abraham Lincoln, Ida B.
Wells, Louis Armstrong, Benjamin Franklin, Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Elizabeth Cady.
There's a handful of people that just are undeniably American and what makes him so is this complex story.
And at the heart of this complex story is, of course, punching other people in a ring, basically naked, but it's also asking the fundamental questions of "What is my purpose here on earth?"
And this young kid understood very early on that he had.
And he says it, when he's talking about giving up boxing before any of the troubles, he says, "I know I'm here for a purpose," which means it doesn't have anything to do with boxing.
He is an apostle of love.
This is a story of freedom, it's a story of courage and it's a story of love.
And again, for everyone watching, this is a truly phenomenal documentary.
I implore you to watch this later this month when it comes out.
But just sticking with the totality of the man, Ibtihaj, I wanna go to you next.
We're the same age, we were born roughly around the same time.
And my question for you is this.
Coming up, how was Muhammad Ali described to you?
And as you got older, what was the most surprising or fascinating thing that you came to understand and learn about the man?
- Well, I have to say that Ken, you are really selling this series.
I can't wait to tune in and watch with everyone.
Muhammad Ali is the greatest sports figure of my life.
He's someone that I've always looked to as a source of light.
Growing up, I knew that he was this professional boxer and he was the greatest of all time, but this celebrated sports figure, I feel like in the Black community and Muslim community, he really was a superhero.
And my parents converted to Islam in the '70s.
And I remember my dad always showing us this photo of the time he got to meet Muhammad Ali.
He was visiting.
I don't know if he was fighting in New Jersey or what, but my dad was so young in this photo.
And it was just, I think, this defining moment in his life, especially as someone who was new to the faith.
And what I knew of Muhammad Ali growing up was so much about and so connected to his faith and him as an athlete.
But what I didn't really, I think, come to realize until after I got to university was more so of his activism and him just being an advocate for humanity and for equity in this country, specifically for Black people.
And that's always resonated so much with me and I feel like it really allowed me to lay this blueprint for what I wanted to do in sports, how I wanna show up in the world.
It's hard to put into words what someone or a person that you've never met before...
I was not fortunate enough to meet Muhammad Ali, allahumma, while he was here.
I really feel like he changed my life in the way that I think about sport and the way that I show up in the world.
And so much of his path was rooted in Islam.
And that's a way that I wanna show up in the world and a way that I wanna live my life as well.
- I agree with you.
I wish I truly had a chance to meet him, 'cause he was such a fascinating, such a complex individual.
I always knew about the boxing, but as I got older, I would come to learn about the different nuances and relationships in his life.
And so, Professor Jackson, I wanna toss it to you on that.
One of the most fascinating elements of Muhammad Ali's life was his brotherhood with the late Malcolm X.
So my question to you is this, and the documentary does a really great job of painting this picture, but how would you describe Ali's relationship with Elijah Muhammad in context with them falling out with Malcolm and how much did Malcolm's assassination impact Ali in his later years?
- Wow, easy question.
(everyone laughing) Well, let me start by saying this.
Any time you are put on the spot to comment about Muhammad Ali, it's very easy to get tongue-tied because the man is so huge that you're looking for words that will match the magnitude of his presence and impact.
And that's just so very, very difficult to do.
To my mind, I think that Elijah Muhammad was a person who really contributed enormously to putting forth a redefinition of American Blackness, of really defining an alternative modality of being Black in America.
A modality of Blackness that did not begin with the definitions of the dominant group of whites as the criterion for what was valuable, that Black people could determine for themselves what was good, what was bad, what was valuable, what was not valuable.
And the dominant group of whites no longer sat in ultimate judgment of that.
I think that Elijah Muhammad defined that alternative modality of American Blackness, but Muhammad Ali, I think more than anyone else, personified it.
He is the one who gave it flesh, who gave it blood, who gave it a voice, who unleashed its power into the ether where everybody basically internalized it.
And I think that human life is evolutionary by nature.
None of us is the same person today that we were 10 years ago and certainly not 20 years ago.
And I think that in his early years, his early relationship with Elijah Muhammad, for him, that was a way out.
That was one of the things that helped him.
You got to imagine this.
One of the things that I marvel at in Muhammad Ali, 22 years old, making some of the decisions he made, taking some of the stands that he made, and Elijah Muhammad was the basis upon which his new way of thinking allowed him to access those parts of himself that would enable him to take those stands.
And so he was very loyal and he saw Elijah Muhammad as being a transformative figure, not simply for him as an individual but for Black people in America.
And he didn't want to let that go.
He later came to regret that and regret his relationship with Malcolm X as it had devolved.
But you know, that's part of the evolution in life that we all go through.
We all make decisions at one point that we see later on were not the decision that we would have made if we knew then what we know now.
But I think that Muhammad Ali's personification, and I'm speaking here not as someone studying Muhammad Ali, but I'm thinking about myself as a child, as a teenager, and the things that Muhammad Ali did and said and how they impacted me in terms of my ability to imagine what I could be, not just professionally, but just in terms of being a man, being a Black person in America, having the ability to define my life, my circumstances for myself without having to seek permission from the dominant culture.
And you talk about the decisions that we make and how they impact our lives.
I wanna go to this second clip.
We're gonna watch a clip about the most controversial and pretty much landmark decision of Muhammad Ali's life.
And Ken, to use a sports analogy, I'm gonna hand this off to you and let you tell us what we're gonna watch in this next clip.
- Yeah, let me be pretty brief.
He's really a divisive figure, as David Remnick suggests in the film, to that larger white world, and there's three strikes against him.
First one is he's loud and he's proud and he's bragging and he's not behaving the way an athlete should.
And he's certainly not behaving the way a Black athlete should.
So that's strike one.
Strike two is, after he defeats Sonny Liston, he announces that he's been a member of the Nation of Islam.
This has been labeled by the mainstream as a hate group.
There's been take-downs of it and documentaries of it.
And then he refuses induction into the US army.
He's reclassified as 1A, he says he's not going.
And a lot of his licenses are strip from various places, fights are postponed or moved around.
He's basically being boxed into a corner.
And then of course the United States government brings charges against him when he actually refuses physically the induction.
And that's strike three.
And so this is a clip from our second episode, that takes the story which exists on one level and puts it into another level courtesy of Professor Jackson, and I think just understanding what the stakes are at hand.
So it's a very, very short clip.
And I think it'll certainly give this distinguished panel a chance to respond.
(crowd chattering) - [Narrator] Two weeks later, an all-white Houston jury found Ali guilty of refusing the draft.
The judge, ignoring the more lenient recommendation of the prosecutor, sentenced him to the maximum: five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
And he would have to surrender his passport.
(tense music) Ali's lawyers immediately filed an appeal, prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, a process that could take years, Ali remained free, but without his title or a license to box.
He fully expected that he would one day go to jail for his beliefs.
- We who are followers of Elijah Muhammad and the religion of Islam, we believe in obeying the laws of the land.
We are taught to obey the laws of the land as long as it don't conflict with our religious beliefs.
- [Reporter] Will you go into service as such?
- This would be 1,000% against the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad, the religion of Islam and the holy Quran, the holy book that we believe in.
This would all be denouncing and defying everything that I stand for.
- [Reporter] This would mean, of course, that you stand the chance of going to jail as a result of not going into service.
- Well, whatever the punishment, whatever the persecution is for standing up for my religious beliefs, even if it means facing machine gun fire that day, I will face it before denouncing Elijah Muhammad and the religion of Islam.
I'm ready to die.
(tense music) - When I think about him saying, "If they wanna put me before a firing squad tomorrow, I'm ready to die before I abandon my religion."
You can't teach that kind of thing in lectures and books, that kind of thing has to be modeled.
And models turn into traditions and traditions provide people with the mechanical memory to do the right thing.
That's what Muhammad Ali represented in that moment.
Anybody now faced with a major decision, and what's the right way is clear and the wrong way is clear, but the consequences are dire, now they have a model that they can fall back on psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.
That's what Muhammad Ali represented in that moment.
And to me, that moment will live on forever.
- That right there, listen, that part gives me chills every time I hear it.
Hearing Ali and then hearing Professor Jackson back to back like that.
I never heard that Ali quote before, and I thought I heard every Ali quote.
And that's a great thing about this documentary, is that just when you think you know everything about this story, they come with a, pun intended, a left hook that catches you off guard.
So I wanna start with Professor Jackson on this one.
In 1967, Ali's boxing career is stripped away basically at the peak of his powers.
And when you think about how Ali basically sacrificed that part of his career to not only stand in his beliefs, but also hold a mirror to society, what are some of the thoughts and emotions that come to mind when you realize, this guy really sacrificed the prime of his career, and then when you start piecing together the rest of his life, how much did America take away from Muhammad Ali when they made that decision?
- It's clear what was taken away from Muhammad Ali, but for me, the more important thing is what Muhammad Ali gave to America, gave to us all in that moment if we would but take it.
When I look at that clip of his saying, "I'm ready to die," it says that we now don't have an excuse.
Knowing the right thing and then fearing the consequences of doing the right thing and then to have those fears paralyze us to the point that we don't do the right thing.
And I think that Muhammad Ali is an example that we need now perhaps more than any other time in our history, because people are seeing the right thing to do, they know the right thing to do, but the powers that be can incentivize and disincentivize in such a way that the right thing is never done.
And what I meant by mechanical memory in that statement was that through models that inspire us and then inspire the population at large, we can go around all of those fears, all of that negative self-talk, all of the direct and indirect threats that want to stop us from doing the right thing.
We can go around all of that and we can invoke our mechanical memory by looking at what doing the right thing looks like and simply doing it.
And in that way, we all become empowered as a society.
And for that reason, I really hope that Muhammad Ali's legacy will not be lost on America.
We don't have an excuse for not doing the right thing.
- You hit the nail on the head with that.
And I wanna go to Ibtihaj next, and feel free to respond to anything he just said.
But I do have a question for you.
Obviously you're an Olympic medalist, which means you're one of the greatest athletes in the world, but what was that process like for you?
Understanding, "Hey, sports is more than what I just see in a box score," and what was the reaction towards you once you started to speak on these issues that were very personal towards you and your community?
- I knew from a really early age that sports were just more than sports, that my hijab, my skin color, even at times my gender had the power to change how people treated me, and especially competing in a sport like fencing that historically is very white.
There was a lot of pushback just in my existence, especially as an athlete who was good as a kid.
There was a lot of pushback in me just trying to exist in sport.
And you know, when you're really young, you're not thinking about politics.
You're not thinking about religion, even.
You're just trying to play the game.
And I've always found it really perplexing how officials and parents of other athletes, and even sometimes other athletes can put their own biases, oftentimes implicit biases, onto you, and you as a young Black athlete, as a young Muslim athlete, have to carry that with you through sport.
But one thing that I will say is that knowing my history as an African-American, and having such large, powerful sports figures in particular really lead the charge in forcing our society to change and become more equitable for people who look like me, allowed me to really navigate some difficult spaces in instances throughout my career as a kid but also in my professional career.
I don't think I would've been able to do what I was able to do in sport and really transcends sport in a way, without having knowledge of these athletes before me, like Muhammad Ali.
And I know I've said this, and I could say it until I'm blue in the face, he really, honestly is a hero of mine.
And just like you said, Justin, I'd never heard that quote of his before.
And it makes me wonder if I'm willing to fall on the sword of faith in that same manner.
Are you willing to give up everything for the things that you believe in?
And that's why I feel so strongly about using my platform, even coming from such a small sport, using this moment in time and having the opportunity to win an Olympic medal, using this in a meaningful way.
We have this one shot at life and this one shot to get it right, and to do what we can to better our communities, whether it be local or global, and just try to make the world a better place.
And I know that that sounds so difficult, but we see what Muhammad Ali was able to do with his time here on earth.
And honestly, it's revolutionary, but it's so meaningful and so impactful in so many ways.
And I agree with Dr. Jackson, I pray that society doesn't forget all that he was able to do in his life and really use that as motivation and encouragement for us to do the same thing with ours.
You speak about Muhammad Ali being a hero to many, including us.
I do have to say, and I have to use a personal story at this moment.
I do have to say, you are a hero to my younger cousin.
She saw you in the 2016 Olympics and she was just floored.
And she was like, "We can do that?"
And I'm like, "Yeah, of course."
And just your representation and your presence alone, it allowed myself and my other family members to just have these really fascinating conversations.
You're not beholden by what stereotypes or society says you're only allowed to do.
You can do whatever you damn well please.
And you can be an Olympic athlete at it.
So on behalf of my family, I do want to say, thank you for just being a light and a beacon and a force of representation.
You're opening doors that you may not even realize that you open in your lifetime.
So yes, you are a hero just like Muhammad Ali is as well.
So we all got one life and you're doing a pretty damn good job at it so far.
- Well, I really appreciate that.
And I just have to say that I think that that unapologetic attitude, and just being unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically Black, so much of that, I think, comes from legacies like Muhammad Ali's legacy, and him just being almost defiant by society's standards and his Blackness and in his identity as a Muslim.
And I feel like even unconsciously, so many of us have inherited that, that's why I'm so excited for this series and to watch it, because like you said, Justin, there's so many pieces of this puzzle that I'm not even familiar with, and I just look forward to learning more.
You're gonna be blown away, I can promise you that.
And Ken, I wanna toss this question to you, just speaking about this episode in particular.
I think one of the more fascinating subtleties that I saw in this episode were the clips of the Black Vietnam soldiers speaking out in support of Muhammad Ali.
Why was this juxtaposition of Black men at war supporting another Black man who said, "I didn't wanna go to war" so important to be featured in this film?
- I think it was important for us to try to represent in every way that Professor Jackson and Ms. Muhammad have said that he did and to be conscious of all of this stuff.
So when he refuses induction into the United States Army, there are huge swaths, a majority of white people are opposed to this, but so are a lot of Black people.
And we wanted to make sure that people in the Black community also saw this as a principled stand, just as people in the white community.
I grew up on a college campus.
When he said what he said about the Vietcong, my dad and I were opposed to the war, and we were thrilled by it.
He was and remained a hero from that.
So it's never all one thing or all the other.
And it's really important that we don't fall into those kinds of traps all the time.
When you say you hadn't seen that bit of footage, of course you haven't, because we have certain conventional wisdoms and conventional ways of solving narrative about Muhammad Ali and the early period is this brash braggadocio, not the thoughtful person who's saying, "I know I'm here for a purpose," or "I'm willing to face machine gunfire."
That's not that.
There's another moment when the Supreme Court, on a technicality, liberates him from his prison sentence and you'd expect him to be joyous and reciting poetry and being in your face and "I told you" and all of this, and he's not.
When a reporter shoves a microphone in his face and says, "What do you think about the system?"
He says, "Well, I don't know who's gonna be assassinated tonight.
I don't know who's gonna be denied justice for equality."
He's not thinking about himself.
He's not thinking about this minor victory of his after having sacrificed the premiere period of his professional life.
He's thinking about the whole 350 years of the treatment of Black people on this continent.
He's thinking about Emmett Till, not much older than him, whose open casket his mother had the courage to show to the world and his father's frustrations, all the way back to 1619.
And he's also ranging ahead, is he not, to people that we're gonna find out about.
He's saying Rodney King, he's saying Trayvon Martin, he's saying Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child, and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
And unfortunately my list could go on for hundreds and hundreds of others.
And yet he contained that in this moment.
"Yeah, it's a victory for me, but," and that's where you see his immense power.
When you said he was a superhero, it's so interesting that in response to the way he treated some of his opponents, particularly Joe Frazier, with the racist language of a bigot.
Todd Boyd in the film says, "I just feel like he was using his powers for evil and not for good."
And I just went, "Yeah, he's a superhero.
That's who he is."
No Marvel comic, no tired, worn plots and episode 27 of this series comes close to what a real superhero is.
Who's willing to, as you both said, fall on his sword in support of his beliefs and to do what's right, Sherman, as you've said, and then all the other choices that he made, which were the more difficult path.
And I just find the dimensions to Muhammad Ali are dimensions upon dimensions upon dimensions.
And the fact that a hero has flaws is not surprising to me.
That's the nature of heroism.
The fact that he is a superhero with flaws, yes.
Achilles had his heel and his hubris to go along with his great powers.
Tell me something new, right?
This is an extraordinary human being, one of the greatest human beings that's ever strode the planet.
He happens to be a boxer.
It's so mesmerizing to me.
And it was one of the great pleasures of my professional life to work with Sarah and Dave and the extraordinary team of editors watching the introduction, thinking of our editor of that episode, Kim Miille, and how extraordinary a talent she is to have put that opening together so well.
It is one of the privileges of my life to be able to get to know this human being.
You all put together a career-defining body of work and something that will be a beautiful addition to an already worldwide legacy that is Muhammad Ali.
But I wanna stick with religion for a little bit.
Many detractors saw Ali's conversion to Islam as a means of division.
And even later, they saw it as a tool for him to avoid induction into the war.
But Ali's relationship with his new religion, it was neither a publicity stunt or him following a trend.
So Ken, what can we expect to see in this next clip right here?
- I think that's important.
This is a kind of dismount clip.
One thing to understand is, this is from the fourth episode, towards the very end.
And I think what we forget is that, of course, when he refuses induction, because he's a Black man and a Muslim, again, a couple of big strikes against him, his decision is seen as a political decision, as I said.
It's not a faith-based decision.
It's not a decision of conscience, of real meaning and purpose.
It's relegated to the superficiality of politics, which is just a simple binary on-off switch.
This was a bad thing.
And they forgot to take him as the whole person and a person of faith and evolving faith, as Professor Jackson said.
That's the thing that's amazing.
There's a moment when Michael J.
Fox, the Canadian actor who also has Parkinson's, said something that really influenced me.
He said, "I couldn't be still until I couldn't be still."
And I don't mean this to be misinterpreted because so many people fall into this trap that now that he can't speak, Muhammad Ali's safe, right?
That's not what I'm trying to say.
But this most voluble of human beings, this loud, wonderful human being really spoke loudest when he could not speak because he carried on, and he carried on animated by a developing and expansive and transcendent faith.
And so this is just from the last years of Muhammad Ali, a very brief clip that we'd like to show, the last of the clips this evening.
And thank you, Justin.
(gentle music) - [Narrator] His devotion to Islam increasingly shaped his daily routine.
He prayed five times each day facing Mecca, called friends to discuss the differences between religions, and distributed autographed pamphlets that he hoped would help correct common misperceptions about his faith.
When he traveled in the Muslim world, massive crowds greeted him as Muhammad Ali Clay to distinguish their hero from thousands of faithful Muslims also named Muhammad Ali.
During a goodwill visit to Pakistan in 1987, Mohammed and Lonnie visited schools, hospitals, and mosques.
They delivered canned milk to an Afghan refugee camp along the border and encouraged guerrilla fighters there in their long struggle to evict the occupying Soviet army from Afghanistan.
- He needed love like he needed air to breathe.
So the people did probably more for him than he did for them, if not at least equal, you know?
So he was so grateful for the love they gave.
He was so grateful for that.
- [Narrator] In 1989, he was on the road more than at home, visiting England, Senegal, Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia.
In April, he and Lonnie made a pilgrimage to Mecca during the holy month of Ramadan.
Ali had visited Mecca before, in 1972, but now admitted that he hadn't fully appreciated its significance and acknowledged that his commitment to his religion had long been imperfect.
"I fit my religion to do whatever I wanted."
I did things that were wrong and chased women all the time.
Everything I do now, I do to please Allah."
- One of my father's favorite sayings was, "Rivers, lakes, and streams all have different names, but they all contain water.
So do religions have different names, but they all contain truth."
He always taught me that there's only one true religion and that's the religion of the heart, he would say, and as long as you do right, and you treat people right, I believe you go to heaven no matter what you call your religion.
- You know, Dr. Jackson, I wanna start with you because it was mentioned in the clip how Ali evolved and grew into his faith.
And I wanna talk about that because I think that's a very fascinating topic and a fascinating concept.
So just a broad question, and feel free to take it wherever you need to.
What was that religious maturation process for someone like Muhammad Ali, who had experienced so much in his life even before turning 30 years old?
- There's a real extent to which a person is as good as they want to be.
By which I mean that it is what a person aspires to be that will determine the texture and the thrust of their life.
And it's clear that from very early on, Muhammad Ali was very sincere.
And as human beings, we are very complex entities.
The people we love the most often turn out to be the people we hurt the most.
Life is just dualistic like that.
And so against some of our best wishes, our best intentions, the best that we hope to be, we don't always find the ability to live up to that.
And the mistake that many of us make, and some of us are encouraged to make this mistake by people who can only see life in black and white terms, the mistake we make is that because we're not able to live the perfect life, we give up on trying to live the better life, the life that improves year after year and decade after decade.
And Muhammad Ali did not let go of the person that he wanted to be, the Muslim that he wanted to be.
And despite the fact that he did not often live up to that, he continued to strive towards being that Muslim that he wanted to be.
And that, to me, again, that's a testament to his character.
I've always said, Islam is a marathon.
It's not a sprint.
It's not something you go from 0 to 60 in whatever number of seconds, it's something that you achieve over a lifetime.
And I think that it's really important to remember those kinds of things about Muhammad Ali.
And let me just say one last thing here, because people who may want to detract from the religious value of Muhammad Ali's life may often point to some of these indiscretions.
Well, let me share with you something from Muslim tradition.
They came to one of the famous imams, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who is the leader of one of the four schools of Islamic thought, considered to be one of the most stringent schools.
And they said, "Who should we have to lead the army, a pious person who is weak or a person who's not so pious, but strong?"
And his answer was, "The pious person will benefit himself through his piety, but we will suffer by his weakness.
And the impious person may harm himself through his impiety, but we will benefit from his courage."
And so I think we need to look at what Muhammad Ali contributed to us as a society, right?
He really did do something that I think we need to do a lot more of, and that is to remind America of the fact that it is not a place.
America is a project, and it's a project that seeks to bring together people from all over the planet and to make a single political community out of many peoples.
And so the idea that somehow he can't be American because he's Muslim, that's actually going in the opposite direction of the American project.
And I think Muhammad Ali really did remind people of that, and through the way he lived his life, actually, in a sense, move the needle in that regard to the point that we can see an Ibtihaj Muhammad today.
- Muhammad Ali was as American as they come, when you really break it down, as you just did.
And Ibtihaj, I wanna toss this next question to you.
We got a little less than 10 minutes left.
When you just look at experiences like what Muhammad Ali went through in his life, what you've gone through in your life, what do you think is still the biggest misconception towards athletes and religion that needs to be rectified moving forward?
- Well, first of all, it's tough to follow Dr. Jackson.
That was tough.
(laughing) I think that Muhammad Ali really set the bar when it comes to just learning to lean into your identities, but also leaning into being American.
I think that within the Black community specifically, even, because we come from an enslaved people there is this misconception that there's no tie to America itself, in a sense that there's almost a disdain because our ancestors were brought here by force.
And what I love about Muhammad Ali's legacy is that even though his ancestors did not choose to come here and were brought here on slave ships, he still loved America, even though he was forced to go to segregated schools, through that, he still had love for his country.
And even though it seems, during that time where he announced his conversion to Islam, American society turned against him, I feel like he still had a love for his country even after he was convicted of draft dodging.
I just feel like through all those different moments, he still showed a love for his country, and he really showed us that you could be American or that being Muslim was also being American in this instance.
And even now today in 2021, 20 years after 9/11, I still feel like Muslim Americans are fighting for just that common understanding that we too are American.
And what I was able to just take away from Muhammad Ali's career is that I don't need anyone to define what I am for me.
I know what I am.
I don't need anyone to define it.
I don't need a society that is often rooted in white supremacy to define what my ancestors built for free, what my position on Team USA should look like.
I feel like those are all things that I've been able to understand through choosing to learn about American history, through studying it in school, through learning about it on my own.
Honestly, the public school system in the United States fails most of us, if not all of us.
And we owe it to ourselves to really understand how this country was built, how it still impacts us today and why we all need to do the work to create a more equitable world for all of us.
And I feel like this is why Muhammad Ali's life is so important, in that he was able to blend so many different things, whether it be sports and religion or even politics, he was able to so seamlessly blend those things in a way that made them palatable for people to really get a true understanding of what it means to be connected along the lines of just being human and being able to look past these things that are social constructs.
- You mentioned what you learned in the classroom and how that fails so many students each year.
This is a documentary that needs to be shown in classrooms.
This is an example of a true, in-depth education of a world icon who impacted so many pockets of everyday life.
- So PBS is the largest classroom in America and our films play regularly in them for 20, 30, 40 years.
And that's why I've stayed with PBS, because of that ability to intersect with the more pedagogical urgency that Ms. Muhammad is talking about.
- That's a smart move.
- (indistinct) Justin, in relation to what I said before.
But I think that, especially in this moment through which we are presently living as a country, I think that what Muhammad Ali said to America, and we need to be reminded of this, is that America is not simply an extension of Europe, right?
We are not bound by a single history, by a single blood, by a single race.
We are a collection of people from all over the world who have constitutionally agreed to live together and to work out the terms upon which we are to live together.
And I think that going through the 21st century, one of the lessons that America has to learn as a part of the American project is that we will not be able to see our way forward forever relying exclusively on a European heritage.
- Let me add to Professor Jackson.
Let me add, if I could, Justin, to what Professor Jackson just said.
I came across a quote from another holy man recently, different religion, but he said, "All life is interrelated.
All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.
And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be."
That was Dr. King.
And it's just an amazing, amazing quote that speaks to exactly what Professor Jackson, everybody, indeed, tonight, but more importantly, what Muhammad Ali was talking about all his life.
As much as he had joined a separatist religious cult, he was always integrated with everyone in the world, and saw no distinctions, looked through the color of the skin, looked through to who the person was, and with extraordinary generosity.
We begin the film with the quote that service to others is the rent you pay for your room on earth.
What's on his gravestone is, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven."
And we know how spacious that room is.
And I know we've got a few more minutes left before we have to wrap it up.
I'm gonna pose this question to Ken, but the entire panel, feel free to jump in and express your thoughts.
It's so powerful to me that we're having these conversations on Muhammad Ali and race and religion, coming off a year like 2020, which we've already expressed that the hurdles that we had to go through to overcome that year and hurdles that we're still having to overcome right now, but it's also not lost on me that we're having this conversation some 48 hours before the 20th anniversary of September 11th.
And we can all remember how that tragedy ignited so many uncomfortable conversations around race and religion, and so many of which were rooted in grossly unfair stereotypes and images.
So when people watch this episode when people watch this series, what is the biggest takeaway?
Not just from Muhammad Ali, but around race and religion as a whole, that you hope viewers come to understand and apply in their everyday life.
- Well, we don't want to say exactly what everybody who watches the film should understand.
That would be terrible.
We've presented a complex narrative, and we want very much for people to feel like they can make up their own minds, but it's really clear, a story about freedom and courage and love, it's a complicated dynamic, ever shifting kind of thing that the freedom for a Black person in America to escape the specific gravity of what keeps you from being free, and Muhammad Ali was free, are immense and challenging.
And we hope the film has done that.
A good deal of that freedom comes, as I think we've talked about tonight, through a spiritual path, an evolving spiritual path.
That is important to know.
That it manifests in real conscience and therefore courage in the face of the momentum and norms of society.
And at the end, he dies the most beloved man on this planet.
And that's not for an accident.
That is because not only was he speaking to Black Americans, he was speaking to people who were oppressed across the world.
And when he said, "I'm pretty as a girl and I'm attractive," he's saying Black is beautiful, but anyone who has felt the boot of the oppressor can find, in my example, a foothold, some purchase through which you can begin to sustain your own sense of drive, your own sense, as Ms. Muhammad was saying, of who you were.
And we stand on the shoulder of this giant, whoever we are, wherever we are, to be the kind of person that we ought to be, knowing full well that that is, as Dr. King said, in relationship to everyone else's struggle.
And America, the project, is about the realization of all of those things.
And so, we deal with 9/11 in the film and I hope that people will watch it because Muhammad Ali was courageous, of course, in his commenting about it and about the discrimination that was taking place against people simply because they were of the Muslim faith.
And I think this is it.
We have an ending comment by an extraordinary person, Howard Bryant, in the film.
And in the middle of that, towards the very end of the film, we cut away from him and we go to the Brooklyn Bridge, where a protest is taking place.
A still photograph.
And we deliberately don't tell you what the protest is, but you can feel it, that you know what it's about.
And we're zooming in very softly on a young Black woman who has come to this demonstration without a placard or anything, is wearing a simple black T-shirt with white lettering.
And all it says is "Muhammad Ali."
So in 2020 or 2019, when this took place, she felt that what she needed to express her participation in this event was a commitment to a human being that was dedicated to freedom, courage, and love.
And that, at the end of the day, says it all, and why he has to exist in the pantheon of all Americans, up there with the greatest, Louis Armstrong and Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln, all of these people, he co-exists on that level because of the freedom he sought and achieved, the courage that he exhibited throughout and the love he was an apostle of.
There's a wonderful shot of him with the Beatles in the Fifth Street gym as they're training.
And I'm thinking, these five men, only two survive.
Understood what one of the survivors, Paul McCartney, said, "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."
We are looking at a human being which was a manufacturing plant of love.
And I know we gotta wrap up, but I just wanna thank all of the panelists.
I learned so much just in this discussion alone right here.
This was a true honor and privilege for me to just be able to talk about a walking beacon of truth that is Muhammad Ali.
Sometimes the truth is hard to swallow.
Sometimes the truth is complex.
Sometimes the truth can get it wrong, but at the end of the day, the truth is right.
And he lived a life of purpose.
He lived a life of righteousness.
And again, it was just an honor and privilege to be able to talk to all three of you about this.
And again, please watch this documentary once it begins to air on September 19th on PBS at 8:00 PM Eastern.
Any last thoughts, feel free to get them out here, but just thank you all so much.
And thank you to everybody who tuned into this event virtually.
On behalf of everybody, thank you.
- Thank you, Justin.
We're so pleased to be here.
- Thank you.
- Thanks for having us.