Muhammad Ali was the most famous person I ever interviewed, indeed the most famous person I ever met.
Yet, he was quietly dignified, didn’t play the celebrity and showed a depth of intelligence that most people never appreciated.
In the spring of 1969, Ali was scheduled to speak at Indiana University in Bloomington. It was during the time he was banned from boxing because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
When I encountered him, he was leaning against a wall in the IU Memorial Union, waiting to check into his hotel room. He wasn’t trying to attract attention to himself, and his quiet demeanor didn’t even draw a crowd.
Yet there was no mistaking his presence. His athletic build, even partially hidden in a dark suit, was evident. He looked like he could step into the ring in a heartbeat.
But it was his hands that most impressed me. As we shook, my hand literally disappeared into his.
We talked quietly for some time. His answers were always thoughtful, lacking the poetic bombast that marked many of his most famous television moments.
Ali’s speech topic was not the Vietnam War, which dominated the news at that time, or boxing and the unfairness of his ban from the sport.
Rather, he spoke about language and perception. He discussed how our language shapes how we feel about other people.
He started with how “sinister” originally meant left-handed but has devolved to a more pejorative usage. He added that sane people often are described as being in their “right” mind.
Ali then went on to discuss how the word “black” traditionally has a negative connotation in the English language — a black mood, black-hearted, dark thoughts. He contrasted that with how people commonly use “white” terms — white lie and white knight.
He urged his listeners to be aware of the impact their choice of words can have on an audience, especially one they are not intimate with. Our various upbringings have shaped how we use words but left us blind to how those same words might have a negative impact on some of our listeners.
This is a lesson many people today still need to be reminded of.
Over the years, I have met and interviewed countless famous and less-than-famous people. I can remember what only a few have told me and, then, usually not very clearly. It is a testament to the greatness of Ali that not only do I clearly remember meeting the man but I also remember what he said.