By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Since the day he was born in one of the poorest zip codes in Louisville, Muhammad Ali was Black. When he became rich and famous, he was Black; and when the last round ended in the late evening hours of Friday, June 3, the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion won the biggest fight of his illustrious career.
Never a sell-out, Ali remained until his death, a Black man who gained the respect of the world by staying true to himself and his people.
Millions around the world are bracing for an epic funeral that may feel like the ultimate victory party for a man who came out on top simply by being unapologetically Black to the very end.
Ali defeated some of boxing’s most revered powerhouses, but perhaps his most vaunted opponents were the U.S. government and politicians, including the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. They all attacked Ali hoping to deliver a knockout of their own by banning him from the game or yanking his boxing license. Not even these strikes were enough to put away “The Greatest.”
For Ali and millions of Blacks, the real fight was outside the ring where people were treated like second-class citizens, and the Civil Rights Movement was brewing. Many Blacks were tired of being losers in a country where whites had the advantage.
The elusive prize was respect, and Ali was determined to win it not only for himself, but also for his people—for us. Ali dared anyone to disrespect him, but most important, he dared to stay Black in good times and bad.
At a time when racism was rampant in America, many whites viewed Ali as arrogant. To Blacks, Ali was a confident and fearless leader who was simply asserting his rightful place in American history. An athlete and dazzling showman, he was as Black as they would come.
There have been many Black mega-stars who have vaulted into the stratosphere with their amazing talents. Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston are among them. But, no celebrity has had a special bond with the Black community more than Ali. Throughout his life, Ali’s “Blackness” has never been questioned. Ali had conviction. Ali had Soul. Throughout his life, he kept many of us Black and proud by commanding respect from a world that could care less about people of color.
Now, presidents, royalty and hundreds of celebrities around the globe are in Louisville to say goodbye to “The Greatest” during several memorial services that have turned the city upside down.
Former President Bill Clinton will give a eulogy at Ali’s funeral, which will be at 2 p.m. Friday, June 10 at the KFC Yum! Center. President Barack Obama will not attend the funeral since his daughter’s high school graduation is at the same time. White House advisor Valerie Jarrett will attend the funeral on the president’s behalf.
On Thursday, June 9, a prayer service with Ali’s body was scheduled at Louisville’s Freedom Hall Arena.
Organizers said over 2,000 media organizations have requested credentials to cover the service. Some 600 police officers from the city will be on hand to patrol the crowds. On Wednesday, in just over an hour, some 18,000 tickets were taken by fans who started waiting at 4:30 a.m. Roughly 16,000 hotel rooms in Louisville are near capacity. One limousine service has rented out all 28 vehicles in its fleet.
Ali will be buried in a private ceremony at Cave Hill Cemetery, which will be closed Friday, but will reopen on Saturday, June 11. The cemetery is the city’s most prominent burial ground where the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Colonel Harland Sanders, is buried. Cemetery officials expect huge crowds to visit Ali’s grave when the grounds reopen to the public on Saturday.
With Louisville in the global spotlight, city officials have been working around the clock to have the best ceremony possible.
“Ever since the passing of the Champ … (the) eyes and ears and soul of the world have been focused on our city,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. “Now the world is doing more than watching our city, the world is coming to our city. When we lay the Champ to rest on Friday, we’ll be welcoming national and international figures to our town.”
Ali was old-school. He had a 56-5 boxing record, but never forgot his roots. In the early ‘60s Ali, then Cassius Clay, lived in Allapattah—a predominantly Black inner city neighborhood where thousands of Blacks were displaced after the city seized homes through eminent domain. Ali would often be seen walking the streets of Miami’s Liberty City signing autographs and participating in the community.
On February 25, 1964, at 22 years old, Ali won his first heavyweight boxing championship beating Sonny Liston in the first round.
Later that year in 1964, Ali moved to Chicago. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam and joining the Nation of Islam.
He moved into a 28-room mansion in Kenwood to be close to Minister Elijah Muhammad. When Ali was banned from boxing and stripped of his boxing titles for refusing to join the Army to fight in the Vietnam War, Chicago became an exile city for him. After the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971, Ali returned to boxing winning two additional Heavyweight titles in 1974 and 1978.
Mayor Richard J. Daley refused to call Ali by his new name. He worked with politicians to revoke his boxing license so Ali wouldn’t be able to fight in Illinois. By the time America forgave Ali for not fighting in the Vietnam War, Daley had a change of heart and awarded the Champion the city’s highest honor, the Medal of Merit.
In addition to Woodlawn, Ali stayed in various places on the South Side during his exile years. He lived in a third-floor apartment in the 7000 Block of South Creiger—a neighborhood that borders the affluent Jackson Park Highlands district. He also stayed in a two-bedroom home in the 8500 block of South Jeffrey—about five minutes from First Lady Michelle Obama’s childhood home in the South Shore neighborhood.
During his stay in Chicago, Ali frequented barbershops and restaurants. Fans often flocked to him as he walked along 63rd Street under the “L” train. Along with Sugar Ray Robinson, Ali frequented the historic Coulon’s Gym on the South Side. The gym closed after it relocated to Ogden in 1981.
Ali’s son-in-law, Mike Joyce, an attorney and former boxer, owns Celtic Boxing Gym on the Chicago’s South Side. He’s married to one of Ali’s daughters, Jamillah Ali. Joyce said he was by Ali’s side when the champion died of septic shock on June 3. He praised Ali as a tough fighter who didn’t see failure as an option.
“He was a man who set goals and who believed in himself,” Joyce told the Crusader. He didn’t set limits and had courage, strength and conviction.”
Ali married Sonji Roi from Gary, Indiana in 1964. Ali would also sometimes take a camper and vacation with his family at the Indiana Dunes. The couple divorced in 1966.
Roi would be the first of Ali’s four wives. In 1967, he married Belinda Boyd. After the couple divorced in 1977, Ali married Veronica Porsche that same year. At the time of his death, Ali was still married to Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, whom he married in 1996.