The moment I saw the news, I knew I would have to write about Ali, about our connections however tenuous. At first it was impossible to put my thoughts together. All week long news feeds, photos, quotes, and videos about him drew me away from whatever else I was working on. My last post about the connections I keep seeing between world events and my life was in my mind (Inside the UCLA Shooting).
When as a child I heard Muhammad Ali say he was “The Greatest” I believed him. Why wouldn’t I? My Mom and Dad, two of the greatest people I knew, were both born and raised in Louisville. My grandmothers both lived there where I spent numerous holidays and weeks of summer vacations. My brother watched Ali’s fights, rooting for the most famous of Louisville’s favored sons. Great people came from Louisville. Why not the G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time)?
Born January 17, 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was 13 months older than my father. I grew up thinking they attended the same school, or that perhaps my grandmother, a local teacher, taught young Cassius who didn’t change his name till 1964. As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts. My youthful imagination already made stories. Until hearing about Ali, it had never occurred to me that you could change your name to anything you wanted. To me that was pretty darn cool. Despite my youthful error, there are a couple of connections.
Angry about a stolen bike, Cassius ran into a local gym where cops worked out. Telling Sergeant Joe Martin how he wanted to whip the thief, Martin told the 86 pound 12-year-old that he should learn how to fight first, and Martin became his first trainer taking him up to his Golden Gloves days when my father first hear of him. Since my grandfather was the superintendent of the traffic division, he was Officer Martin’s supervisor at some point earlier in his law enforcement career.
Hearing this story I had to wonder, was this the kind of encounter a black youth in 1954 expected to have in a gym full of cops? Kentucky is a mid-southern state, and Louisville was its largest city. Experience in Europe has shown me that some Europeans think the movie “Selma” represents what all of America was like in 1965. Obviously that’s not so, even if Americans of subsequent generations think pretty much the same thing. Consider Louisville in 1957 as my father described it:
Certainly, I remember the news coverage, and the brutality of the Alabama police, but south Alabama is so far removed from Kentucky, and I don’t mean just in road distance: I mean culturally as well….In Louisville…the schools were desegregated in 1957 without incident (to my knowledge). I was in the seventh grade at Shawnee Junior High, and the integration of black kids into our classes, lunchrooms, and gym were a non event.
15-year-old Cassius must have had a slightly different experience of racism from those raised in the deep south. Certainly whites-only restaurants persisted, like the one Ali was turned away from not long after returning home with his 1960 Olympic gold medal. (He said the medal was lost and not thrown into the Ohio River in anger, debunking an oft-repeated urban legend).
Outside the ring, Ali’s refusal to submit to the Vietnam draft was one of the biggest news stories of his young career. My father remembers, “He and I both had to appear for our draft physical on the same day. The only difference was that I was standing in line with fifty or sixty other guys in our underwear waiting to see the doctor, when he came down the hall with his attorney, and went right in. He was already famous by then.” Gee, I hope they didn’t interrupts anybody…coughing.
The coverage of Ali’s boxing career and rise to fame was everywhere on the web this last week. What strikes me, though, is what he did with that fame and admiration. Certainly he used it in the civil rights movement. Some speculate that it was his first trip to Africa that opened his eyes to his larger world-wide influence. His “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Kinshasa (where we adopted our younger sons) is humorously titled in my opinion when I think of how large the city was even at that time. He road through the streets sitting behind the sunroof of a slow-moving vehicle, hands stretching out to meet the thousands reaching for him. That I cannot relate to.
However, I know what it’s like for Africa to open your heart, take a piece, and never return it. Co-founding Future Hope Africa in the DR Congo and sponsoring two Ethiopian children’s education and welfare through Compassion International are two of the ways I answered the call to make a difference.
Ali answered a call as well, and I wish there was more information on Muhammad Ali’s philanthropy work being tagged and shared. That is perhaps where his greatest legacy remains. In his retirement, Ali devoted much of his time to philanthropy. Over the years he supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among other organizations. He traveled to numerous countries, including Mexico and Morocco, to help those in need.
Mr. Ali first came to the UN in 1978 to address the UN Special Committee against Apartheid with a message of peace and spirituality. He brings people from all races together by preaching “healing” to everyone irrespective of race, religion or age. Over the years Mr. Ali has been a relentless advocate for people in need and a significant humanitarian actor in the developing world, supporting relief and development initiatives and hand-delivering food and medical supplies to hospitals, street children and orphanages in Africa and Asia. (From Ali’s “United Nations Messenger of Peace” page)
Muhammad Ali became an ambassador for peace beginning in 1985, when he flew to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. Ali also has made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea; delivered over $1 million in medical aid to Cuba; traveled to Iraq to secure the release of 15 United States hostages during the first Gulf War; and journeyed to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison.(Look To the Stars)
When Ali announced in 1984 that he had Parkinson’s disease, he entered another fight. You may remember that Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed in 1991, did a series of commercials with Ali that juxtaposed the big man and the small both working toward a cure. That’s the video I’d like to share with you. Living in Arizona, Ali also raised funds for Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix. Fox called Ali “a peaceful warrior.”
In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. He also opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, that same year. “I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given,” he said. “Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”
About a week and half ago I was browsing the sports section of our international school library in The Netherlands picking out books for my children to read this summer. A few days later we woke to the news that Muhammad Ali had died. “I just brought a biography home for the kids to read about him,” I said. My husband responded to my angst with, “You didn’t kill him by checking out that book.” What a coincidence though.
Many of my cousins still live in Louisville, and they took their children to stand along the funeral route Friday and then posted photos of the historical procession to Facebook. Muhammad Ali is buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill National Cemetery, a last crossroads for us.
In college I remember navigating the 296-acre cemetery, taking lefts at most forks in the narrow road till I reached a right-hand turn near the brick, back wall. From that winding bit of pavement, I spotted my grandmother’s stone, stopped the car, and laid flowers before wandering to look for nearby relatives.
Perhaps the next time I visit I’ll wander a bit farther, see the grotto, take my children to feed the ducks at the pond, and pay my respects at the grave of Muhammad Ali. I will tell them how he was much more than a boxer, how he fought for the rights of himself and others, how he used his fame to help poor and oppressed people around the world, and how The Greatest defined being great.
During his boxing days Ali said, “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” It’s one of his most famous quotes. I like this other one better myself. Hana Ali repeated these oft spoken words of her father.
“Nothing makes us greater than the next person but the heart. If you want to be greater than someone than you have to have a great heart.” –Muhammad Ali
Kristin King is a native of Kentucky, an author, and co-founder of Future Hope Africa. She is working on her third novel and closely monitoring the crowdfundraiser her nonprofit is running for Vacation Bible School in the Congo where for a limited time your gift will be doubled! She encourages others to “answer your call” whatever it may be.