Muhammad Ali is dead.
This great figure, whose eight-times great-grandfather was born into slavery in Kentucky and given the name of his owner, Cassius Clay—a prominent white politician—and whose descendants carried that name and its dire associations until the heavy-weight champion forced the world to rename him, bears away with him an heroic legend of which we have great need.
Born in Louisville, in poverty, he early attracted the attention of young white sportsmen because of his evident talent in the ring. One of those young white sportsmen was my older brother, Worth.
The group decided to help Clay (as he was known them) finance his early training. They told him to meet them at their men’s club in Louisville, which they knew full well had never admitted a black man (or a Jew or a woman).
Denied entry at the front door, the young boxer waited in the parking lot until one of the group came down and handed him a check.
Decades later, when Louisville had to recognize, grudgingly, its native son’s importance—there had been a great deal of criticism of his opposition to Vietnam—the city “fathers,” as they were, decided to rename Walnut Street in his honor.It was done. But the men’s club, which stood on a corner of Walnut, refused to change the name on its writing paper—and for all I know, it has never changed it to this day.
The history is long of gifted black athletes, actors and singers being given their professional start through the generosity of white men. I suppose some assuaging of guilt was involved; one of the early cracks in the wall of racism was the statement that “Of course there are some, a few, who have talent…”
The city has to some extent made up for this early history in the building of the Muhammad Ali Center, an extraordinary, interactive collection of artifacts, film clips, photographs and news stories teaching a new generation the facts of the champion’s life.
Expertise is always thrilling. I feel the same thrill when I see my granddaughter, Iona Motta Ellsworth, ride her beautiful horse. A few days ago, at her high school graduation, she was radiant with happiness, and her spirit, talent, and determination may carry her to a place on the Olympic Equestrian Team, which has been her goal for several years.
It may seem a stretch to compare this beautiful blond young woman with a black athlete, but the crucial ingredients are the same: talent, persistence. And heart.
[For more on my brother Worth and Ali, please read this archival Sports Illustrated piece entitled The Eleven Men Behind Cassius Clay]