Happy Birthday Muhammad Ali.
I like to play a self-serving game with people called Who’s the most famous person you ever met?
Self-serving, because I know I will win.
It always starts the same.
First I have to define what met means.
It doesn’t mean be in the same room. Or see from a distance.
You have to have shaken hands or exchanged words.
It’s all a sham, of course. Because in 1967 I met the most famous person in the whole world.
I was at an anti-war demonstration at the Century City Hotel in Los Angeles.
On June 23, 1967, President Lyndon Johnson was attending a $500-a-plate fundraising dinner at the hotel, nestled between Beverly Hills and Westwood. That afternoon thousands of us gathered at nearby Cheviot Hills Park for a march through Century City and then to the hotel to protest the Vietnam War. The pre-march rally was like a summer festival, vendors selling hot dog and young people flying kites. Anti-war celebrities like Benjamin Spock and H. Rap Brown spoke to the crowd before we began marching in the early evening peacefully up the Avenue of the Stars towards the Hotel.
While walking around the park I spotted a smaller crowd gathered around Muhammad Ali. Ali had been stripped of his championship for refusing to be inducted into the Army to fight a war in violation of his religious beliefs.
I pushed my way through the crowd, pulled out my wallet, found my draft card and grabbed a pen out of somebody’s hand. “Mr. Ali. Would you sign my draft card?” I asked.
And he did.
Later the demonstration of 20,000 was broken up violently by the Los Angeles Police Department in what became known in LA as the Century City Riots.
Ali turns 70 on Tuesday.
There is a good article in the LA Times today on Muhammad Ali by Dave Zirin.