The man once heralded as "The Greatest" for his ability to tag opponents with both tongue and fist, said little as he visited one of the nation's most racially torn neighborhoods.
Yet amid the marching bands, awards, photos, singing, and tears, he delivered a powerful message of tolerance and healing at high schools and community centers in Watts on Tuesday.
"Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong."
The words are those of Muhammad Ali, and the face is still one of the most widely recognized on the planet. Because of his five-decade journey from the ghetto to religious conversion, civil disobedience, and three heavyweight titles, his wisdom resonates strongly with youth in these mostly poor and middle-class minority neighborhoods.
"He's really cool. Everyone loves him," said Sergio Tacha, a 17-year-old junior at Centennial High School, where Mr. Ali and entourage made their final stop. "It's kinda 'cause he's funny and serious and talented all at the same time. You love the guy for who he is, what he represents and what he's been through."
The school visits in Los Angeles were part of Ali's international campaign to fight bigotry and prejudice begun last October in New York. The campaign is accompanied by the release of two books: "Healing: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding," by Ali and Thomas Hauser; and "Muhammad Ali: In Perspective," by Mr. Hauser alone.
More than 3,400 journals were distributed at two high schools, encouraging students to reflect in their own hand on brotherhood, empathy, and racial awareness. Art contests at the two schools invited participants to select a quote and create a visual interpretation. The day was declared Muhammad Ali Healing Day by the L.A. City Council.
"The contest really coalesced attention on creative solutions to tensions that face us every day," said Annie Webb, principal of Locke High School in South Central, where Ali paid his first visit. "These neighborhoods have come a long way since the [Rodney King] riots [of 1992] but these kids need to hear the message over and over and over, every day. They need to make it their own."
Ali still generates the attention worthy of a head of state. But the heavyweight who once said he could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," has been slowed by a muscular disease. He rarely speaks, instead allowing his wife, Lonnie, to read remarks or speak extemporaneously on their mission.
"We are not here for a photo op with Muhammad or just to say hello," she said at Locke High School. Asking students for their own definitions of healing, she generated a Donahue-like dialogue in a packed gymnasium.
Next, co-author Hauser read key quotes from Ali: "If I hated, I couldn't think. If I hated, I couldn't eat. If I hated, I couldn't work. I'd be nervous; I'd be frustrated. I don't hate."
Hauser says it's not just the words so much as the experience they come from that gives them meaning.
"Everywhere [Ali] goes, people of all colors and religions crowd around, hoping to get close," he says. "If we can all get together and have a meeting of the minds on Ali, why can't we get together, period. I look at this man and I say to myself, 'God is trying to tell us something.' "