By Carmen M. Woodson-Wray, Gary Crusader
Muhammad Ali, known as the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of the world and an international celebrity, succumbed last Friday to respiratory issues after battling Parkinson’s disease for 32 years. Even though his notoriety was recognized and admired everywhere he went, it was during his visits in Gary where he met his first wife and married her.
During the latter part of the ‘60s and mid-‘70s, he made numerous visits to the Steel City. Sonji Roi, his first wife, met Ali in Gary in July of 1964—the same year he won his first heavyweight championship. During that time, she was a cocktail waitress, a singer and a model.
Roi revealed that Ali actually proposed to her the night that they met. They were married at the courthouse on August 14, 1964. She was 23 and Ali was 22.
In previous interviews, Roi stated that Ali’s Muslim customs and devotion to Islam caused a rift in their relationship. She felt that the Nation of Islam brainwashed Ali and tried to persuade her into adopting Muslim dress and customs. Reportedly, she said, “I wasn’t going to take on all the Muslims. If I had, I probably would have ended up dead.” They were divorced on January 10, 1966. After the couple’s divorce, Roi retreated to Chicago where she died of natural causes on October 11, 2005.
State Representative Charlie Brown said it was in 1968 that Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher took office and everyone wanted the city’s first Black mayor to succeed and so did Ali. “He wanted to help the first mayor to see if he was going to be successful as the mayor of a large city.”
Brown said he chaperoned Ali around Gary as he talked to people about life and success as a boxer. One of the places he took him was a Black-owned restaurant called Baskey Bar and Restaurant located on 20th and Broadway.
“While we were there, we talked about his success and how much time he could give to the kids in Gary about strengthening their lives and getting a good education,” Brown shared.
Brown said he asked if he could take a picture with him and Ali replied, “If you dream of being in the ring with me, you’re going to wake up apologizing. This was in 1969 that he came, and in 1975, he came back to campaign for Mayor Hatcher.”
Hatcher said Ali had a special heart for Gary. “He got married in Gary because if he had gotten married in his hometown of Louisville, he would have had to wait three days, but the Justice of the Peace in Gary—Hoyt Brown—told him that he would conduct the marriage and that he would not have to wait.”
During his mayoral swearing-in ceremony of 1967 inside the Memorial Auditorium in Gary, Hatcher said Ali made a surprise visit. “I was on stage being sworn in by Judge James Parsons when there in the back of the auditorium was Muhammad Ali who said he had to come to see the first Black elected mayor of a major city get sworn in.”
Hatcher said Ali visited Gary again, and he took him to Roosevelt High School and Lew Wallace High School to speak to the students.
“After that, I would see him around the country. On one occasion, I was sitting on a plane behind him with Louis Drinkard on our way to Washington, D.C. He was with Wallace Muhammad, the son of Elijah Muhammad. As I was sitting there, I was trying to decide if I was going to touch him on the shoulder. I said to Drinkard, ‘I wonder if he would recognize me?’ When we got ready to get off the plane, he did. From then on, I would see him at meetings around the country.”
Private and public funeral services for Ali are planned for Thursday and Friday in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.