After winning boxing’s Olympic gold medal for the United States in 1960, Cassius Clay went home to Louisville where many restaurants remained segregated in the early 1960s, thinking, “I can eat downtown now.”
But he was wrong. When he sat down and placed his order, “the lady said ‘we don’t serve Negroes,’ and I was so mad I said ‘I don’t eat ’em either, just give me my cup of coffee and a hamburger.’”
The man who became Muhammad Ali told this story 10 years later, in 1971, to British television talk show host Michael Parkinson as he explained what led him to convert to Islam. The interview — the first of several remarkable talks between the two — revealed the complex, charismatic, funny man who gained fame for his brilliance in the boxing ring but captured enduring renown for his verbal sparring and his humanity.
Ali died last week at the age of 74 and will be buried today in Louisville following an Islamic funeral service Thursday.
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He was quick-witted and astute, serious in his humor, eager to use his fame as an athlete to confront deep, dark flaws in his hometown and home country.
That 1971 interview took place not long after the Attica Prison riots. “They just wanted to kill black people,” Ali said, describing how police fired on unarmed prisoners, killing 29 of them and 10 of the hostages they held. “It happens every day,” he said, foreshadowing the stories we struggle with today, “policemen pull black people over and hit ’em across the head.”
Ali knew the world loved him as a boxer, as “the Louisville lip” who touted his greatness in the ring, as an entertainer. And he knew that when he diverged from the role to confront racism and protest the Vietnam War many people thought he had gone too far, had forgotten “his place.”
For refusing the draft he lost his heavyweight title and over three years of professional fighting in his prime. His conversion to Islam and civil-rights activism also cost him the scorn of politicians, sportswriters and other journalists, and former fans.
But he never lost his sense of humor and he didn’t abandon his beliefs, his hometown or his country.
“People want to hear truth,” Ali told the interviewer.
A lot of people say that, but Ali lived it and we are better for it.