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The day Muhammad Ali went to Ground Zero

Everyone over a certain age remembers where they were when the Twin Towers fell 16 years ago. But George Franklin also remembers a different day.

“I have seared in my memory, the date of September 20, the day I took Muhammad Ali to Ground Zero.”

As recovery workers picked through the still-smoking ruins of the Twin Towers, a clearer picture emerged of what happened on those jets, and the 19 attackers. And that triggered a rising tide of rage directed at Muslims. Which is why, on the morning of September 20, only nine days after the attack, a small private jet took off from Benton Harbor, Michigan bound for New York.

George Franklin was an executive at Kellogg at that time. He told the story of Ali’s journey to Ground Zero on Stateside.

Muhammad Ali and George Franklin
Credit Courtesy of George Franklin
Courtesy of George Franklin
Muhammad Ali and George Franklin

“What had happened was, a couple of days after 9/11, Mayor Giuliani's office contacted our relatively new CEO, a fellow named Carlos Gutierrez, about -- could we help facilitate getting Muhammad Ali to Ground Zero?” recalls Franklin.

“So on September the 20, nine days after 9/11, I got up at about 5:30 in the morning in Kalamazoo and did the 30 minute drive to Battle Creek, where I got on the Kellogg jet and we did about a ten-minute flight to Benton Harbor, where we had arranged with the Whirlpool people to pick up Ali, his wife Lonnie and two business associates to fly to New York.”

Traveling was difficult for the 59-year-old Ali, since his Parkinson’s syndrome was fairly advanced, even 15 years before his death.

Listen below to hear Franklin describe an interaction he had with Ali en route to New York.

The group’s first destination once they arrived in New York City was the closest fire station, FDNY Engine 10/Ladder 10, right across the street from the Twin Towers.

Franklin says they were greeted by Governor George Pataki, Mayor Giuliani and dozens of first responders and their families.

“And the grief was overwhelming.”

Despite the sorrow of the crowd, Franklin says Ali’s presence gave people something to smile about.

“Total strangers would run up, and just grab onto him … hug him. And he would hug them, and then they would start talking about where they were when he fought so-and-so and where they were when he did this and that…. And people’s reactions to him were just incredible. He would do this little routine: He would let people go up and put their fist up on his chin like they were punching him, and then people would take their photos.

"He lifted a lot of people’s spirits.”

After spending a few hours at the fire station, Ali held a brief press conference, where he gave a famous response to the question of how he felt about the attackers’ Islamic faith:

Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams. They have different names, but all contain water. Religions have different names but all contain truth.
- Muhammad Ali on September 20, 2001.

“And the press room just went silent," Franklin says. "No one knew what to say, no one knew a follow-up question. It was so well done, he addressed the issue in a beautiful way.”

“We then went to see the inconceivable: Ground Zero.”

After the press conference, Franklin, Ali and the rest of their group went to the heart of the disaster.

“It was surreal,” recalls Franklin. “And ahead of us, about two or three blocks from [a military checkpoint], was I’m gonna guess 13 stories of smoking rubble. It was still smoking! You could not believe what you were seeing.”

Tents were set up around the site, where emergency volunteers and other first responders were working.

Muhammad Ali with first responders and their families.
Credit Courtesy of George Franklin
Courtesy of George Franklin
Muhammad Ali with first responders and their families.

“And people would come up and take their pictures and grab hold of him and groups would form around him. You’d hear people yelling, ‘Ali’s here, the Champ’s here!’ Firefighters and cops and all different people would come and all gather around him.”

Franklin fondly recalls Ali’s reaction to the overwhelming emotions, saying, “He clearly had a feel for the emotion of these people, and the grief that was there. Here’s this ultimate fighting machine that was such a teddy bear. I mean, he would just hug people.”

Franklin has been asked whether he wants to go to the 9/11 memorial in New York City. But he says nothing can compare to the strength and humility of the people he met with Muhammad Ali on September 20, 2001.

“There’s no memorial that can match it.”

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
Emma is a communications specialist with the digital team at Michigan Radio. She works across all departments at Michigan Radio, with a hand in everything from digital marketing and fundraising to graphic design and website maintenance. She also produces the station's daily newsletter, The Michigan Radio Beat.
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