A Show and Tell Made Possible by ‘The Greatest’

When I was going to Clara Tag Elementary School in Miles Heights, a neighborhood in the Cleveland area, we had a show and tell in school. I was excited because I finally had something to show and tell.

My mother and I went to pick up my father from the Cleveland Hopkins Airport. For those who remember, this is pre-9/11. Back then, you could go to the actual gate and watch the passengers leave the plane.

One of the passengers was a man named Cassius Clay. He would later change his name to Muhammad Ali. His proper name is Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. He was born on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky. His father was Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. and he was a sign painter who also loved to act, sing, and dance. His mother, Odessa Grady Clay, worked as a cleaning lady. They had two sons.

The story is told that his bicycle was stolen by a bully in the neighborhood when he was approximately 12 years old. When he reported to the local policeman, named Joe Martin, the policeman told him that he needed to know how to defend himself from bullies. Officer Martin had a boxing club. Cassius Clay joined that boxing club.

Officer Martin saw the talent that Cassius Clay had and helped him to develop that talent. An African-American trainer named Fred Stoner taught Cassius the science of boxing. Maybe that’s where he learned how to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” something he would proclaim throughout his boxing career.

Cassius Clay as a teenager won the National Amateur Athletic Union and the Golden Glove Championships. He also won the 1960 Olympic Games that were held in Rome, Italy. He won the gold medal for the lightweight division.

A group of sponsors in Louisville sponsored him to fight in the heavyweight division. It is said that when he signed at that time, it was the largest professional boxing contract for an amateur. Cassius Clay was known for his boasting, rhyming, and predictions of when he would knock somebody out in a boxing match. I think his marketing strategy was to make people hate him and buy his tickets to his boxing match to watch him get beat. Many would eventually love him. The problem for his haters is that he won most, if not all, of his matches.

In February 1964, when he was only 22 years old, he fought and defeated Sonny Liston, who was the heavyweight champion at the time. It would be the first of three times that he would win the heavyweight championship.

Later on, Cassius Clay would join the Black Muslim faith, who at the time believed in a separate black nation within the United States. I’m not personally sure what they believe in now; it could be the same. After joining them, (he would eventually leave them years later) he first changed his name to Cassius X. While this was going on, the Civil Rights Movement was going forth with marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations throughout the United States. One of the leaders at that time was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was August 28, 1963, that they had the famous March on Washington, where it is believed in between 200,000-300,000 people attended. At the same time, it was the centennial of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, but not much had changed for the average African-American. They had just completed the success of the Birmingham Bus Boycott, where Jim Crow laws had made them sit in the back of the bus even though they paid the same amount of money as any other rider.

During the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave an address that many call the, “I Have a Dream” speech. John F. Kennedy was the president of the United States during the March on Washington, he would start and after his assassination a few months after the march, on Nov. 22 of the same year, Lyndon B. Johnson would finish the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many believe that the speech and the march was the catalyst that got it passed.

It is during this time that Elijah Muhammad would give Cassius X the name Muhammad Ali, which means beloved of Allah. In May of 1965, Ali would successfully defeat Sonny Liston and defend his championship. He would do that at least eight more times.

In April of 1967, he was drafted into the military service during the Vietnam War. Because he was a minister in the Black Muslim Religion, he felt he was not obligated to serve. He was heavily criticized in the media and was called unpatriotic. The New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title. Ali was finally sentenced to five years in prison, but was released on appeal and his conviction was three years later thrown out by the United States Supreme Court.

He would go on to get the heavyweight title back and he would also have three fights that were considered to be the fights of the century, with Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Ali would defend his title 10 more times before he was defeated in February 1978.

This man was standing in front of me at the Cleveland Hopkins Airport on the plane that my father flew on. My mother was bold and asked him for his autograph for me. It would be my show and tell item. He asked her for some pen and paper. She couldn’t find anything but her checkbook. He told her, “I will autograph the line that says paid to the order of if you will autograph the line on the bottom of the check to make it good.” They both laughed and he gave us his autograph.

No matter what you think about him, no matter what mistakes he may have made, he made a positive difference in the world that he lived in. I will always be honored that I met him at least once. It was my Black History moment. He died June 3, 2016.

Guest columnist Cummings is pastor of Bethlehem Apostolic Temple in Wheeling and Shiloh Apostolic Temple in Weirton.