Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
Today, there is no doubt that Muhammad Ali was the greatest person, with the exception of Jesus, to have walked this earth. His life lifted up African Americans. He did not have to shout “Black Power!” He personified it every day of his life. I don’t know how many Blacks were inspired by him but for sure I was. Every generation has a special person who soars to the top. It did not come easy for Ali. But as he would often say, “I shook up the world!”
The late Rev. Louis Coleman, founder of the Louisville Black Chamber of Commerce, grew up with Ali. He gave me the pleasure of listening to his recollection of the school yard prankster who grew up to be the hero of millions. Known as Cassius Marcellus Clay at the time, he would never walk. He ran whenever the opportunity occurred. Daily he would wait for the school bus to arrive at his corner. Then he would challenge the bus driver to a race to school. Kids in the bus would cheer him on as he huffed and puffed all the way to class. He never lost a race.
A born prankster and he loved to make people laugh. One of his favorites was making cars pull to the curb. He could make the sound of a siren. You could hear him for blocks and his pals would crack up as cars would suddenly pull over and wait for the “siren” that never came. Young Cassius was always doing something, but never got in trouble because he was never caught.
You might imagine that the girls were crazy about the young handsome kid. NO! Ali would run all the time, but did not bathe enough to keep up with his perspiration. He was downright funky and sometimes you could smell him two yards away. The love of running would morph into boxing and that became his destiny. His boxing skills were introduced to the world during the 1960 Olympics. He won the gold medal in the Light Heavyweight class.
He came back to Louisville as a hero. However, he found that Jim Crow segregation was still there. Disgusted he walked down along the Ohio River and tossed his gold medal. It was from that point on he would take on our nation and vow to change it. He did more than his fair share of influencing the powerful to change their ways.
Boxers at the time were known to act conservative and live a quiet lifestyle. Ali chose a different road to travel on. One day while watching a wrestling match he noticed “Gorgeous George” Wagner. Gorgeous George was quite the self-promoter and the press followed him wherever he went. Ali chose to emulate that. He figured that would speed up the opportunity to a heavyweight championship fight. My buddies fell in love with the guy. The press went after this proud Black man. Soon white America wanted him to fail. He was referred to as the “Louisville Lip.” The more white America was offended by him, the more Black America fell in love with him.
Ali’s strategy worked. Before long he had the opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship. He was pitted against the late Sonny Liston who had an awesome scowl. As I recall he was about a 7 – 1 underdog. He predicted that Liston would fall in the 7th round. To the shock of experts, Liston failed to come out for the 8th round. Ali defeated him – mind and soul. Things started going along fine for the new champion. It appeared his reign would last as long as that of Joe Louis. He was taking all comers and white America did not like it. That racism which bothered him so much on his return from the Olympics was rearing its ugly head.
The last straw came when he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and soon became a minister. The white establishment decided to draft Ali into the Army. There were a couple of issues with this. Ali was a minister and ministers were exempt from the draft. That is all ministers except this one. The military had a “Do not Accept” list. Among the organizations that were forbidden were the Ku Klux Klan, Communist Party, Nazis, Nation of Islam, etc. You had to swear no allegiance to these organizations or the military would not take you. It was obvious, they (the US Government) ignored its own rules in order to put Ali out of business.
They boldly did this thinking Ali would shrug his shoulders and go marching off to Vietnam. Once again, Ali would shock the world. He refused to go and sued the government. He showed an immense amount of courage and eventually won his case unanimously before the Supreme Court. He won his case but the U.S. Government accomplished its mission. He could not fight for four years and his championship was taken away.
Four years can cause a lot of “rust” on the body. However, Ali showed how great he was as he pulled himself back into shape and eventually won back his championship. Regardless of the undeserved punishment, he came back and once again “shocked the world.” His leadership, philanthropy (http://bit.ly/1UuAhZt) and image did much for our country. There will never be another like him. Rest in peace Champ.
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected]