Louisville.Summer of 1971. Three months after the Ali-Frazier, Madison Square Garden “Fight of the Century” where, once again, we heard his famous, taunt,”Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.”
Ali was back in form. Home town folks were beginning to get over Ali’s objector stance against the still-raging, ever escalating Vietnam War. Accepting him as Mohammed Ali after his rejection of his “slave name” Cassius Clay. Fans and followers were listening now to his eloquent Black Pride, and equal rights for all, speeches.
It was that summer when I learned about “T.J.’s” (not his real name) death.
Who killed T.J.?
That previous school year, at John Marshall Elementary School, in Louisville, where I taught, there was a so-called “behavioral modification” classroom set up for students like T.J. A room where reward points were given out for showing up, sitting in one’s seat, putting name to paper, completing one’s assignments…you get the picture.
Well, it was working for T.J.! His attention, academic and behavior performance showed marked improvement from the first day he was selected for this class.
Then, for all the progress he made…a bullet killed him that summer.
Yes, who killed T.J.?
Was it his little brother, who, mistaking T.J. for an intruder, shot point-blank through the apartment door?
Was it T.J.’s grieving parent who felt compelled to buy the gun to protect the kids, but was not home at the time?
Was it the neighborhood’s reputation that caused the parent to purchase the gun?
Was it the police who virtually never responded to calls for help from that neighborhood leading people to protect themselves?
Or, was it the city mayor and officials who didn’t put enough resources into the neighborhood to make it a safer environment for all?
Could it be, then, that the public housing structures which compact too many people in too small of spaces, be, the bullet that caused T.J.’s and far too many others’ deaths that long, Louisville summer?
I was out of town when he died. I was getting a small break from the oppressive humidity that lingers over Louisville like a blanket as soon as spring yields itself to summer in the Ohio River Valley.
I was not there for the funeral. I found an escape, at least for two weeks.
So, now, as I see this week all that Louisville pride welcoming “The Greatest” home for the last time…like a hook from Ali’s massive arm…the memory of that day I found about T.J….still “Stings like a bee!”
Rest in peace, Ali. Rest in peace, T.J. Sons of Louisville. Both of you!