Mohammed Ali – ‘The Greatest’ – died today, at the age of 74. With his loss, the world is deprived of the terrific energy of a principled, devout and committed man. A boxer, a philosopher and a poet. But for those of us who worked hard to achieve the cancellation of about $100 billion of debt for thirty five of the poorest countries, Ali occupies a special place in our hearts. This great man, celebrated around the world, took time out to join us in London in 1999, and to give his backing to our campaign.
As one of our ambassadors he became part of the international Jubilee 2000 campaign. Here he is featured in a Japanese newspaper cartoon as one of our backers (with Bill Clinton) beating up the Japanese politician opposed to Japan writing off the debts of the poorest countries.
And here he is in a photo with many of the leaders and staff of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, including Michael Taylor, Rodney Bickerstaff and Prince Nazeem, the boxer. He was pleased that we were backed by Muslim leaders (also pictured) and organisations as well as many Christian organisations.
Ali, Bono of U2 and the Brit Awards
Ali had flown to Britain with his wife Lonnie and his good friend Howard Bingham, specially to act as ambassador of the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the cancellation of the debts of the poorest countries by 2000. The music industry, as represented by the organisers of the annual Brit Awards, invited Ali together with Bono of U2 to present the Jubilee 2000 campaign at that year’s awards.
Jamie Drummond, a key member of the J2k team, and now a leader of the One campaign, was responsible for the organisation of Ali’s visit, and for liaison with the music industry. A video of the Jubilee 2000 campaign was shown at the Brit Awards, and then the legendary boxer and human rights activist was awarded the Freddie Mercury Award – for outstanding charitable works – to a standing ovation from the many thousands in that crowd.
It was an incredible moment…which all of us there will never forget.
A humble man
Ali arrived early one February morning at Gatwick Airport, but deliberately avoided the VIP suite – saying that it was reserved for royalty and leaders like Pinochet. He was carrying two bags, and stopped to sign autographs for the airport staff. In a large black box he had a very large supply of pre-autographed Islamic texts, signed ‘Mohammad Ali 99’. He was introduced by my colleague Anni Marjoram, to the driver, Leroy Denny. “Leroy? That’s a slave name. You have to change your name…choose your own name” he said. On route into London we happened on a sports documentary on Radio 4 which happened to feature Ali. He stopped the car to listen.
Later on in the visit we introduced him to some children. He immediately changed and became the entertainer, asking the children to stand still as he “levitated”. And I swear, to the wonderment of all, his feet did lift off the ground. But to this day I cannot believe what my eyes witnessed.
We even took him to Brixton to meet with African Jubilee 2000 debt campaigners there:
Mohammed Ali’s lasting impact on me
At our first meeting, I had a long discussion with Ali and his team on why the debts of poor African countries should be cancelled. It was clear that not all of his party were convinced, and that some had probably advised him against aligning himself with the campaign. I persevered and explained that in many ways our campaign was an anti-racism campaign, as we invariably met opposition to the idea of granting debt relief to poor African countries. “Why give debt relief to those poor black countries? Aren’t they all corrupt? And incompetent?” were remarks we often heard on the doorstep. I explained that we countered that opposition by showing that western creditors had often colluded with corrupt African dictators, and in any case most of the corruptly diverted gains were banked in western banks, both in London and Geneva – in the full knowledge of western leaders. We were campaigning to make debt relief transparent, and the spending of the proceeds accountable.
On the day he prepared for his departure, I accompanied him to the lift, before he went up to his hotel room. As I stood looking up at him (he was a very big man!) to say goodbye, he literally lifted me up in his arms until we were eye to eye, and said: “Never give up fighting against racism. Never give up.”
To this day his words send a shiver down my spine. I will never forget. And I will never give up fighting against racism.
Rest in Peace Mohammed Ali. The Greatest.