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Rev. Pinkney and the Champ: Muhammad Ali Belonged to the People

We all have heroes and people we look up to and admire. Often those individuals are famous. For Michigan political prisoner Reverend Edward Pinkney, two famous, highly revered individuals he holds in high esteem are Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King.

As tributes come in for Muhammad Ali, who gave three years of his life, sacrificed time he could have spent at his boxing vocation because he stood up against the Vietnam War, the personal stories have been numerous. Some of Ali’s children have been interviewed and have shared memories and photographs of “The Greatest.” His memorial to be held Friday, June 10 in Kentucky, will be attended by many celebrities and dignitaries from around the world. This three-time Heavyweight Champion may even have convinced Dr. Martin Luther King to deliver his famous Vietnam “A Time to Break Silence” speech in New York City in 1967. These two dynamic, peace-loving, gentle souls and civil rights leaders shared friendships and convictions.

Rev. Pinkney, who has spent decades fighting social and judicial injustice is currently paying a high price for his outspokenness as a Benton Harbor, Michigan community organizer, minister, and human rights activist. He is a political prisoner at the Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula. Pinkney has been reminiscing about how much these two great men influenced his life.

Back in 1962, Pinkney’s father took him, his two brothers, and his mother to hear Dr. Martin Luther King deliver a speech in a vacant lot in Chicago. At the age of thirteen, Pinkney knew very little about King, but Pinkney’s father insisted his sons hear Dr. King because “we’re going to make history.” Most likely, Pinkney’s father knew this would be a profound experience for his sons, and certainly for Edward, it was.

Rev. Pinkney remembers standing in that Chicago city lot along with 700-800 other people, listening to Dr. King talk about Alabama, civil rights and equality for all, and hearing his father’s words about “making history” echoing in his mind. When the speech ended, Pinkney’s father waited for the chance to speak with Dr. King and shake his hand. During that handshake, Dr. King reached over and put his hand on Edward Pinkney’s young head. Pinkney remembers that “head pat” and counts that experience as the one that set the pattern for Pinkney to become who he is today. Even at that young age, he was in awe of Dr. King and felt privileged to have met him.

As a young man, Pinkney spent some time training and becoming a boxer; he got his inspiration from Muhammad Ali who became Pinkney’s hero. Pinkney was so shocked at the passing of Ali that he made this public statement, published on bhbanco.org on June 4, 2016:

The death of Muhammad Ali was shocking to me. And to the world. I am deeply honored to have lived in his time. He was truly a leader who made the supreme sacrifice of himself by refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army.

America has lost one of its most effective individuals who led by example. Oppressed people, at home and abroad, have lost an articulate voice, a powerful and just voice.

Ali’s words mirror a 20th Century America that had acquired global power, but America also sacrificed some of Ali’s most treasured values on the altar of institutional racism, economic injustice and international influence. He was one of the first Americans, black or white, to offer reform about a promise unfulfilled.

He was both a unique personality and a representative of the people – precisely because he belonged to the people.

Muhammad Ali was my hero. He gave me the initiative to stand tall and make the supreme sacrifice of myself. I will always be in awe of his courage and indebted to the life lessons he has given to the world.

Muhammad Ali was not just a boxing legend; he was an activist, a peacemaker, and an inspiration. Muhammad Ali, the world is going to miss you–my hero.

While the media reports on the many life lessons so many learned from Ali, Rev. Pinkney recalls his own personal encounters and friendship with Muhammad Ali.

From 1986 to 2006, Ali lived in Berrien Springs, Michigan where he and his wife Lonnie raised an adopted son Asaad Amin. Ali often made trips to Benton Harbor where he met several local townspeople at various stores and shops. Ali would make a weekly trip to Joe’s Barbershop on Pipestone Road (the owner Joe has passed on), the same barbershop frequented by Pinkney. The two met at Joe’s and became friends. According to Pinkney, Ali always brought along a pack of cards and dazzled patrons with his card tricks at the barbershop, and Ali’s casualness and sense of humor made him easy to talk to and joke around with.

Pinkney told Ali about his stint in boxing, told him how Ali had inspired him, and they teased each other about who could win a boxing match between the two of them! The one-liners always flew at the barbershop. In a joking challenge of a boxing match, Ali would hold up his left hand and tell Pinkney, “I’ll give ya’ two of these right here.” Pinkney’d respond, “If you weren’t my senior, I’d knock you out!” This kibitzing was fun, harmless, and demonstrated the “regular Joe” quality of Muhammad Ali.

As time went on, Pinkney and Ali would talk about the politics of Benton Harbor and Berrien County. Ali was very much aware of the issues Pinkney was concerned about, and Ali admired Pinkney’s activism.

In 2006, Ali and his wife moved to Arizona. On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away from respiratory complications after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

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