When Muhammad Ali was trying to win a fourth heavyweight championship in the late 1970s, he came to the United Nations to campaign against apartheid and injustice and presented then secretary general Kurt Waldheim with one of his drawings entitled “Peace!”
Nearly 20 years later, Ali returned to UN headquarters to be named one of the first UN Messengers of Peace, an honor reserved for distinguished people from the arts, music, literature and sports who agree to focus world attention on the work of the United Nations.
Then secretary general Kofi Annan, who started the program in 1997, said “I chose him because I knew his interest in peace and in the world.” He said that Ali confirmed that interest with another gift to the United Nations a drawing of the globe with the inscription: “Service to others is rent we pay here on this earth.” “It was so powerful,” Annan said in a phone interview on Wednesday with The Associated Press from Geneva.
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“Obviously, he had lost his speed, his vitality and energy, but the concern for others and the love for peace was very much visible.” At the ceremony in Annan’s office on September 15, 1998 where Ali officially became a Messenger of Peace, Annan pinned a small golden dove on his lapel and gave him a videotape of his 1979 speech to the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid.
Ali gave Annan a pair of his red boxing gloves. “He said, ‘I don’t need it any more, you take them,'” Annan recalled. Ali’s wife, Lonnie, who acted as a spokeswoman for the once articulate boxer who had difficulty speaking because of his Parkinson’s disease, said the gloves were symbolic, on her husband’s part, because everything was a struggle.
Despite being slowed by the disease, Ali remained strongly committed to his new role. “He would regularly go off on humanitarian trips, taking the title of UN Messenger of Peace with him, because that’s just something he loved to do,” said Yvonne Acosta, the manager of the messengers who at the time included Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, actor Michael Douglas, chimpanzee research pioneer Jane Goodall and opera star Luciano Pavaroti.
She said that the highlight for Ali was a three day trip he made to Afghanistan in November 2002 not long after the US invasion toppled the Taliban following al-Qaida’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. “The choice of Afghanistan it was his choice,” Acosta said. “He came to us and said this is something he would like to do, to raise the profile of a Muslim country. This was the beginning of the war with Afghanistan and he wanted to show support for his Muslim brothers and sisters.”
The Taliban had banned girls from going to school and she said Ali wanted to highlight the revival of education for girls as well as employment for women, who had been barred from work.