Mohammed Ali remains “The Greatest!” around the world and for me … still stinging…long after his great arms hammered away all the competition in the ring!
His famous, “Dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” became the knock-out combination he threw in the ring and out of it.
He stung his home town, and the whole Boxing Federation, when the prize fighting, “favorite son” of Louisville converted to Islam, demanded respect as Mohammed Ali, and left his Cassius Clay persona holding his heavyweight championship belt, as if it were nothing compared to his conscience when he became an out-spoken champ objector to the Vietnam War.
That’s where my story and his converge.
How would I ever have foreseen, as a high school kid in Michigan, reading every word of every Sports Illustrated issue about Cassius Clay, that I would wind up in Louisville myself?
How would I have come to know teachers who where Ali’s teachers, back in the day? “Oh, he was a loud-mouthed kid,” is the first thing I heard every time I asked, “So, tell me, how was it teaching him?”
So, here I was, seeing every kid I taught in Louisville Public Schools, thinking he was the next Ali. The next champ, but, they wondered, “Why people who loved their Cassius so much, would ridicule their Ali?”
Here I was trying to be Ali-like, but the words wouldn’t come. I went to the ropes every time someone brought up the Vietnam War, because I too was a conscience objector – a silent one.
My objector status put me in Louisville in the first place…in the Teacher Corps… as my “alternative civilian service” to use the Selective Service Systems’ wording.
What did I “give up”? Nothing but a graduate scholarship to U of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Ali? He took the blows on the chin in every way for all of us!
He was stripped of his title, rejected by, I am sure, some of the very people who will be up on those bandstands this week remembering the “Greatest” claiming to be his life-long friend, school chum, neighbor.
This unlikely student will remember Mr. Ali for the fighter he was for peace, for justice, civil rights, the anti-war movement, freedom to be true to one’s convictions – ever that “bee” buzzing truth around our heads, interrupting complacency for the prize of speaking one’s conscience – no matter the cost.
Sting on, Ali! Sting on!