Requiem for the people’s champion

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 6, 2016

By George B. Jackson

For the Salisbury Post

I was born in the early 1960s, a time of social upheaval in America. Growing up poor and black in the Deep South we were taught at an early age the mores of a heavily segregated society. On West Horah Street in Salisbury, where I was raised, we admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We were liberated to be “Black and Proud” by the revolutionary music of the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown.

In February 1967, I met Cassius Marcellus Clay while watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” As a 5-year-old I had no interest in organized sports until I saw this 25-year-old black man tell an adult white male, “Look, I’m the greatest and I can’t be defeated.” I was shocked, scared and excited at the same time. He disregarded the social order of the day. He said things other black men were afraid to say and nobody lynched him. He was my new hero. I remember being happy with my friends on the playground at Monroe Street School singing over and over again, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” A year later I asked my Dad, “When will Cassius Clay be on TV fighting again?”

He shook his head and carefully explained, “I don’t know son. They took his title away and won’t let him fight anymore.” I asked why. Dad said, “He won’t go fight in Vietnam.”

Our champion was sent into exile. The next year Dr. King was murdered. The volatile ‘60s came to a close and we needed a hero in Black America. In October 1970 the People’s Champion was granted license to practice his craft again. Now he was Muhammad Ali. He was older, wiser, heavier and slower. He was still loquacious and we hung onto every word he said.

I remember the day after “Smokin Joe” Frazier floored Ali with a left hook in the 15th round, handing him his first professional loss. It was as if someone died in my neighborhood. Everybody was quiet. We thought he was the greatest, like he said. Four years later in Kinshasa, Zaire, Africa, Ali regained the World’s Heavyweight Championship with a dramatic eighth-round knockout of the previously unbeaten and seven years younger “Big George” Foreman. On Oct. 1, 1975, he fought a third and final match against Joe Frazier in “The Thrilla in Manila.” In 100-degree weather these titans of the ring nearly fought to the death, in what many refer to as the greatest fight in heavyweight history. Ali was never the same after Manila, but his place in my heart as the ultimate warrior was solidified. I guess greatest is not always measured by wins and losses.

As I watched the news coverage on the passing of Muhammad Ali, I could not hold back the floodgate of tears. After a few minutes I realized that my tears were not as much for the champ as they were for the child sitting in the den watching “Wide World of Sports” in 1967.

When your heroes transition from labor to reward, they take a part of you with them. Ali connected me to a simpler time in my life. He instilled so much pride in my generation of black men. He dared us to be great and not compromise. It’s so hard to let him go. He fought Parkinson’s disease for 35 years. He tried, but in the end he could not get up for the final round. The bell tolled and he failed to answer. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls … it tolls for thee.” Farewell, champion. Farewell.

 Dr. George B. Jackson is the founding pastor of Citadel of Faith Christian Fellowship in Thomasville and founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Social Action Committee, Inc.