The Greatest And The Big Peach
When people die, whom we mortals consider to be great men and women, biological camcorders in our brains automatically begin to retrieve and replay scores of collected moments, impressions, feelings, sounds, nuances that bring them back to us, knowing instinctively that we are not ready to let go.
It happens with those close to us: spouses, children, other relatives, friends — and even with those we knew from a distance: towering government leaders, beloved sports figures, courageous military heroes, singular visual artists, actors, singers, musicians and educators; anyone whose lives we have followed with admiration, particularly those we have loved and respected for what they contributed to the common good.
Muhammad Ali, who died June 3, 2016, was such a man. The three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, who brashly proclaimed himself “The Greatest,” when the world barely knew who he was, went on to fight like a true champion, both inside and outside the ring, with such courage, smarts and determination that the world came to agree with him. He was the greatest, and perhaps the most popular athlete this planet has ever known.
With such strong feelings for him in just about every corner of the globe, it is no surprise that his death stirred a ground swell of emotional farewells and tributes, from Miami to Manila; New York to Kinshasa, and in stories online and in print, in which cities touted their connections to him, what “the champ” meant to them, seemingly hoping to embrace at least a small share of his legacy.
Born and reared in Louisville, Ky., he would go on to train and fight in venues across the globe, dazzling boxing fans with his lightning-quick hand speed, adept footwork and his uncanny ability to confuse and surprise an opponent.
He stood before cheering throngs in arenas in Las Vegas; New York City; London, Nassau; Dublin, Ireland; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Jakarta, Indonesia; Munich, Germany; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Tokyo, Japan, and Toronto, Canada, just to name a few. His big fights drew pay-per-view and television audiences in the scores of millions.
He belonged to all of us, wherever we lived. He was our larger-than-life symbol of triumph over the supposed limits of human accomplishments. While controversy frequently dogged him — mostly generated by his own stands on issues, his own choices, and his defiance of conventional wisdom and the-middle-of- the-road approach of “going along to get along”– it never kept him down for the count.
Not even a criminal conviction for refusing induction into military service during a time of war, and a three-and-a-half-year ban from boxing; a devastating physical and financial body blow that would have crippled the careers and spirits of many lesser mortals.
The curious thing is, while the federal government’s stiff sanctions — a five-year prison sentence, $10,000 fine and the taking of his passport, so he couldn’t even continue to box overseas — were intended to be crippling, they may have actually been a blessing in disguise.
Ali decided to try the lecture circuit as bills from legal fees, back taxes and daily living piled up. He was popular on college campuses, sharing his views on his religious convictions, war in general and Viet Nam in particular. His principled speeches connected with young men and women who were making up their minds about the war in Southeast Asia.
Ali’s passionate views fueled the growing anti-war movement and helped change American sentiments about the war here at home, as even former supporters tired of the daily television body counts, ubiquitous footage and the enormous toll on combatants and civilians. That, in turn, helped Ali hurdle the normal parameters of beloved sports figures and become much more important to the social consciousness of the nation. He became not merely a great sports figure, but an icon, recognized in just about every corner of the globe; a symbol of courage and determination, a man unafraid of the powers that be, willing to sacrifice for what he believed.
Near the end of his life, when the ravages of Parkinson’s disease and the cumulative physical damage of decades of toiling at an unforgiving sport had nearly silenced “the loud mouth,” and saddled him with an unsteady gait and tremors in his hands that moved to a beat only he could hear, his arms were raised in victory, still feeling the chants of adoration and love from fans, despite all that life had thrown at him.
Muhammad Ali — as only he could — had succeeded at rope-a-doping his critics — and life; proving that he could take their hardest blows and walk away to a standing ovation, with many of those now applauding having once been among his fiercest critics.
This is an appreciation of the man once lovingly noted as an artist of the first order in the boxing ring, and simultaneously, as a draft dodger, traitor and, possibly anti-Christian. Such was the nature of this towering figure, that we eventually — no matter where we started with him — came to love and appreciate him before he took his leave of us.
Yes, this is an appreciation, but also intended to explain why I believe the city of my birth — Atlanta, Ga. — occupies a special place in the life and lore of Muhammad Ali, after a mutually beneficial relationship that spanned nearly fifty years.
Ali’s association with The Big Peach began with a complicated rescue led primarily by then-Atlanta lawyer, Leroy Johnson, the first black person elected to the State Legislature in Georgia since reconstruction. Johnson told Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Gracie Bonds Staples that, at the time, he was not a boxing fan, but his sense of fairness led him to see if he could help Ali, whom he believed had gotten a raw deal from the federal government.
“He [Ali] was willing to fight for what was right, even if it meant going against the system,” Johnson said. “He had a tremendous obsession with the notion that people should help those who were less fortunate than they.”
As history would prove, Ali, and the city that began its municipal life as a place called Terminus — because it was the end of the railroad line — were made for each other.
The thin, twelve-year-old kid from Louisville, whose major goal, at one time, was to beat up whoever had stolen his red bicycle, and the city that had to rise from the ashes after Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched-earth march through Georgia, had similar personalities. Both being young at heart, brash and kinetic, believing they could — through force of will — brag their way to making their biggest dreams come true.
If they wanted to accomplish something grand, they’d pronounce they had already achieved it, then work like hell to make it so. Ali declared himself to be the greatest boxer in history after he won his first world championship against Sonny Liston in Miami, under circumstances that some observers still question. And he spent his life acting as if it were so, calling himself not only great, but pretty; taunting his challengers with derogatory names, and — adding insult to insult — by pronouncing through loud, child-like, rhyming poetry, that he would take them down in various rounds.
Atlanta, in the rough-and-tumble 1960’s and ’70’s, was a place where segregation, the remnants of race-and-class divisions, and religious intolerance were solid strands of the social fabric. The Ku Klux Klan was still a force to be reckoned with, active from its base at Stone Mountain.
Yet city leaders declared to the world that Atlanta was “the city too busy to hate” (Some said: too busy making money to love or hate.) We were just a decade or so removed from the bombing of The Temple, where the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation worshiped. And in 1966, there had been a race riot in my old neighborhood – Summerhill — after a store owner shot and killed a black teenager.
The grocer said the boy was shoplifting and tried to flee. It was never clear what the kid had allegedly stolen, but the word on the street was that it was a bunch of grapes. The incident drew national attention, as well as then mayor, Ivan Allen, and well-known Black Power advocate, Stokely Carmichael and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC,) to the scene.
Allen, who underestimated the anger of the crowd, stood atop a police cruiser with a bullhorn, but protesters quickly rushed the car and rocked it with such force, Allen had to be rescued by nearby police officers.
During the riot, somebody in the crowd set fire to the building where the grocery/convenience store was housed. One of my classmates and his family lived in an apartment above the store. The building was destroyed. My classmate’s family was homeless, but no one was injured in the blaze.
For days after that, heavily armed officers in riot gear patrolled our neighborhood in armored vehicles with their windows cracked and shotguns protruding from the windows. A year earlier, 1965, Watts had blown up in Los Angeles, with much more damage and heat than we’d experienced in Atlanta.
Before the explosion in my neighborhood, tension and anger had been building. The city had begun years earlier with an “urban renewal” program they called — ironically — “Model Cities.” Houses were being bought up by the city, and residents — many of them longtime renters — were being moved out to the suburbs. The houses would be torn down, and lots left vacant.
There were deep concerns in the neighborhood; things didn’t seem to add up. What had been a place of large older homes, some of which housed extended families and some of which had been divided into apartments, was rapidly becoming a wasteland of vacant lots.
It made no sense to us. This was model cities? If it was, we didn’t want it. What could possibly be the thinking behind this kind of “urban renewal.” I would later think of it in terms of some of the government, nonsensical doublespeak that came out of the war in Viet Nam. Following a massacre, in which a whole village was destroyed by American bombs and ground forces ( even though there may have been only a few Vietcong combatants there) the reason given for the atrocity by an officer on the ground was that: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
What we, in my neighborhood, weren’t aware of at the time was that the city fathers already had a plan for the area. They wanted to bring big-time major league sports to the city, and our neighborhood and others near us were being prepared for what would become Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and its necessary surrounding buffers. It would eventually house the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
When Watts had erupted in ’65, our city officials — as evidenced by their comments in the media — were confident such a thing would not happen in Atlanta. They believed, despite the evidence all around them, that they had their finger on the pulse of the black community. But the truth is, they were willfully, or perhaps, blissfully, tone deaf to the pitch of our desperation and rage. The uprising in Summerhill cast a white-hot spotlight on the city too busy to hate.
Undeterred by reality’s unwillingness to go along with its pronouncements about itself, Atlanta next declared itself an “International City” (At a time when it was still trying to reconcile itself with the rest of Georgia, and a suburban population that often looked upon it with disdain, since many of its members had fled the city proper, uncomfortable with the direction they believed it was taking.)
A lot of that had to do with the increasing political clout of an awakening black population, including a sizable black middle-class that was becoming ever more active. Perhaps the crowning boast — and achievement — was when city leaders offered Atlanta as the site of the 1996 Olympic Games.
We were competing against a strong contingent of what many thought were truly international cities, including Athens, Greece. And this was not your regular Olympics; It was “The Centennial Games,” and Athens had been the site of the first modern Olympics. Not many folks believed Atlanta stood a tinker’s chance.
But there is something those people didn’t know: When it comes to boosterism and self-promotion — to paraphrase former Houston Oilers football coach, Bum Phillips, in answer to a question about the great running back Earl Campbell — Atlanta may not be in a class by itself, but it doesn’t take long to call the roll.
Speaking of dreamers, there was Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr., the first black mayor of a major Southern city, who almost immediately after taking office in 1974, declared his vision for turning the city’s rather humdrum airport — which had begun life more than forty years earlier on property that was an abandoned race track — into the envy of the transportation world.
To many, this dream seemed overly expensive, with no guarantees it would accomplish what he believed. His mid-field terminal project, however, — a total make-over of the airport — opened in 1980, on time and within budget.
Jackson was largely motivated by his knowledge of the city’s history, particularly its early days as a railroad transportation hub. He believed it could be an even more important one, given the increasing popularity of air travel. His vision proved prophetic. Since 1998, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been the world’s busiest in passenger traffic, and at or near the top in annual landings and take-offs just about every year since 2005.
It is the most important economic generator in the state, and a huge contributor to the fiscal vitality of the Southeast. One testament to its success is a standard joke: “You can’t get to either heaven or hell without changing planes in Atlanta.”
Dreaming big has served both the boxer and the city well, but dreaming alone is not enough: The road to success has been, first of all, having the courage to paint yourself into a corner by making a huge boast, then, employing an enormous dose of what Southerners refer to as “pluck.” Followed by not giving up until the results match the boast.
The Beginning Of A Beautiful Relationship
When Muhammad Ali first heard from an official in Atlanta that some city leaders wanted to meet with him and his representatives about getting him a license to resume his boxing career, he was extremely skeptical. He wanted the news to be the answer to his prayers in the worst way, but he had been through so many false starts and disappointments already that he was close to believing there was no hope.
He had been turned down for a license in every state he and his representatives had tried. A string of promoters and others had believed they could work a deal and get it done. But all of their attempts ended in failure, with the deposed champ drifting deeper and deeper into despair over his situation.
Even the biggest boxing venues – New York and Las Vegas – could not deliver, because their states’ boxing commissions were dead set against it. Ali was a convicted felon, even though he was free from jail while he pursued an appeal. ( The U.S. Supreme Court would later overturn his conviction, saying the government’s actions against him violated his right to free speech.)
Ali was facing a crisis, unlike any he had encountered before. After defeating then-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964, the young boxer, who had been going by his birth name — Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. — announced that he had converted to Islam and become a member of the controversial, and little understood, Nation of Islam, whose members were often referred to as Black Muslims; a group that was widely viewed as radical because of its black separatists views.
It called for the country’s citizens of African descent to not rely on their government or its programs to make their lives better, but rather turn to self-reliance, creating their own businesses, their own banks, and building up their own communities. This generated fear and anger in many whites, and even some blacks, who believed the group was overly militant and secretive.
The Nation’s founder, Chicagoan, Elijah Muhammad, and its then-national spokesman, Malcom X, were often targets of hatred and derision because of their hard-line, public stands on issues of race and governance.
In the early days surrounding his conversion to Islam, Ali was often seen in the company of Malcolm X, which led many outside the religion to view the new heavyweight champion as either a puppet of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm, or an opportunist, who believed aligning himself with the Black Muslim movement would, somehow, work to his advantage.
History, however, would prove that Ali was sincere about his religion and continued even after both Malcom and Elijah Muhammad were dead, and one of Muhammad’s sons, Warith Deen Mohammed, took control of the bulk of the organization and moved it into mainstream Islam, which is practiced by millions of adherents of various ethnic backgrounds around the world.
In 1967, after having refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces — on what Ali said were religious grounds ( he was a minister in the Nation of Islam) — as the country was building up its fighting force in Vietnam, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. On top of that, he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing for more than three years.
To add insult to injury, the federal government took away his passport, which meant he could not fight even outside the country. With the considerable tools of his trade now denied him, making a living was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The Atlanta group, headed by State Sen. Johnson, arranged for the champ to fly to the city for a meeting. Not sure he could stand another disappointment, Ali took his time deciding if he would go. After all, this was not long after a trip to Charleston, in which he had allowed his hopes to be raised only to discover, once again, the door was still shut.
But desperation over his financial situation and living arrangements nudged him toward taking a chance on what might be the last offer he’d receive. In his autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” he detailed the dire straits that had nearly immobilized him:
His wife, Belinda, was pregnant. “The next day, on the way to the airport,” he wrote, “Belinda gave me her doctor’s report; a normal delivery was expected three months from then. Our last baby had been premature and lived no more than a few hours. We were careful on this pregnancy to follow the doctor’s advice to the letter. I wanted to eliminate tensions and strains that might have caused the loss of my first son.
“I kissed the place where the baby was growing in Belinda’s body and boarded the plane. New life was coming into my house and it was the thought of my unborn child … that made me review what assets I had now that my boxing career seemed about to end. They consisted of an $80,000 retirement fund, which I had established by deductions from my purses during my first six years as a professional, to accrue when I retired or reached age thirty-five. If forced to retire now, that income would be wiped out by what I owed: $250,000 in legal fees, the results of year after year of court struggles; nearly $40,000 in back taxes; $100,000 more in alimony owed to my first wife (a debt I was determined to pay to the last cent) and a pile of everyday debts which seem to multiply mysteriously, especially when one is used to a comfortable life but no longer has the income to support it …
“I knew that unless my exile ended soon, the tools of my trade would wither. In this mood, I met Johnson’s committee of would-be promoters and fight backers who had come to the [Atlanta] airport to greet me. What I felt, the hopelessness, must have been in my face, for Johnson threw his arms around me and whispered in his soft Southern way, ‘Give us a chance, Champ, We’ll get it together. Stick it out.”
Later, Ali told Johnson that with Lester Maddox as the governor of the state, he would never get a boxing license in Georgia. It was well known that Maddox had been a staunch segregationist, and had once proudly chased black diners from his downtown restaurant with an ax handle. Ali again asked Johnson how he – meaning not just a black man, but also a member of The Nation of Islam, could possibly get a license in Georgia. Johnson’s reply, Ali said, was simply, “I’m not talking about Georgia, I’m talking about Atlanta.” And the way Johnson said it, according to Ali, was as if Atlanta and Georgia “were two different nations.”
In the Georgia of the late ‘60s, that assessment wasn’t far from the truth. While — image-wise — even into the ‘80s, Atlanta might have carried pop-culture monikers, such as The Big Peach, The Black Mecca, and even Hotlanta, indicating a certain progressive-liberal cache in some national circles, the state was still being thought of, in many centers that shaped national opinion – especially in Hollywood and the entertainment world — as the Old South, Klan Country, with its run-down shacks and, of course, a coon dog or blue tick hound under every porch.
I remember — as a young reporter at The Atlanta Journal — being at a meeting to discuss whether some of our entries in national journalism contests stood a chance of winning, given that we were up against entries from the Washington Post. One of the editors there referenced an article in which then-Washington Post editor and strongman, Ben Bradlee, (who had been known to pal around with President John Kennedy) allegedly referred to us Southern journalists, or Southerners in general, as “stump-jumpers.”
While in Atlanta, we might have thought of ourselves as pretty sophisticated and urbane, in many circles across the nation we were still viewed as backwoods hicks, and poorly educated. We were still having a difficult time outrunning false images and ghosts of our past.
Ali’s misgivings about the “project” were understandable. At the airport, according to the champ, he asked Johnson and his group where the mayor was. He had expected to see him with the group. He said he knew from experience that if the mayor of the city wasn’t a supporter, any attempt to get a license would be doomed.
“He’s waiting at the hotel,” was the answer Ali said he got from a tall, heavyset black man, introduced to him as Maynard Jackson, vice mayor of Atlanta. After being driven to a downtown motel and taken up to a “lavish, lavender suite,” he was introduced to other members of Sen. Johnson’s committee: “Mike Malitz, a third-generation closed-circuit genius, who had helped form Main Bout, the company that televised my earlier fights; Harry Pepp [although spelled this way in the book,] the man to whom Ali refers is Harry Pett], a white Atlanta millionaire, and his shrewd New York son-in-law — an attorney — Robert Kassel; Harold Conrad, who would act as Malitz’s publicist; Jesse Hill, a black publisher and insurance company official credited with tiptoeing past Governor Maddox’s sleeping dogs with my license.”
The committee members wined him and dined him with hors d’oeurves, martinis and champagne. But the champ said he noticed them continually “sneaking looks at their watches.” He knew they were getting nervous, because the mayor, Sam Massell, still had not shown up.
In a newspaper interview, following Ali’s June 3rd death from respiratory problems and complications of Parkinson’s disease, Leroy Johnson recounted pivotal interactions with Massell and Maddox that preceded the meeting with Ali in that Atlanta motel. He told Gracie Bonds Staples that he knew it might be difficult to convince Gov. Maddox to — if not approve an Ali match in Atlanta — then, at least, to not block it.
He said he thought he could appeal to Maddox’s sense of fairness and belief that “every one deserved a second chance.” And even tough Ali was legally a draft dodger, an unsavory character in the patriotic South, Maddox agreed to allow Ali’s return to the ring.
But the deal with Maddox didn’t last long. When the fight was publicly announced, “the news didn’t sit well … with the Klan. That same night, shots were fired into Johnson’s home and Maddox retreated.”
The article continued: “Johnson called his old friend and former governor, Carl Sanders, and asked for help. Later that evening, Sanders called and told him to read the next day’s newspaper. ‘I think you’ll be satisfied.’ The state attorney general had ruled. [Because Georgia had no state boxing commission] Maddox had no authority to stop the fight. ‘I knew then we had a chance,’ Johnson said.”
Earlier, according to that same article, Johnson — who “believed with the right amount of fire in his belly, he could do things that other people couldn’t” – went to Mayor Massell’s office. He considered Massell a friend, and he knew he had delivered critical black votes to the city’s first Jewish mayor. But the mayor was listing reasons why he couldn’t pull it off, Johnson said, including opposition from the Ku Klux Klan.
When Massell finished, Johnson’s only response was this: ‘You dance with the one who brung you.’ Massell smiled and offered Johnson his blessing.”
According to Ali’s autobiography, however, Massell was a somewhat reluctant, silent partner. After agreeing to support the fight, he insisted on staying in the background, offering that his vice mayor, Maynard Jackson, would be the face of city government on this issue. Massell, though, told a slightly different story in a later radio interview with Denis O’Hayer, on a local station.
He told the radio host he was on-board with the effort from the beginning, although he knew there would be political ramifications. He said he had previously served in a capacity connected to appeals of draft board decisions and knew that individuals often had sincere objections to military service, so he could be objective about Ali’s situation.
Back in that Atlanta motel room, Massell, whose delay in arriving was leading to tension and agitation among the committee members and Ali, according to the champ’s book, finally showed up. Here’s how Ali recalled it: ” ‘His Honor the Mayor,’ someone said, and everyone stood.
“A short, sun-tanned man with dark, oily hair came in and hesitated, looking around as though he wanted to make sure only the right people were there. He came directly to me, ignoring the introductions, and we shook hands.
” ‘It’s a privilege and an honor to be invited to meet you,’ I said. I was surprised to feel a hand so sweaty, the wettest hand I’d ever held. I understood why it took him so long to get here. I imagined he could hear the voices of his KKK constituents: ‘Mayor, you mean you going to shake hands with that un-American draft-dodging nigger? The Mayor of Atlanta going to meet that Black Muslim? What kind of mayor we got here?’
“But the committee was all around him,” Ali wrote, “laughing and joking, and after a few drinks, Johnson had one arm wrapped around the Mayor, and the other around the Vice-Mayor.” After more conversation among the mayor, Johnson and members of the committee, Ali said, “Mayor Massell turned to me. ‘Well, I told you I welcome the fight. It’s a clean, legal fight, and as long as it’s that, I’m for it.’
“One of Johnson’s aides came to the door and announced, ‘Press conference ready in the main banquet hall!’ We began moving toward the door — everybody except the Mayor, who turned to Johnson. ‘Well, Leroy, I’ve got a previous appointment. I’ll be in my office if you want me.’
“His words took them by surprise. The room got very quiet. Young Kassel moved over to the Mayor, his lips tight, as though straining to control himself. ‘Your Honor, as you may recall, you gave us your word you would make a public statement in favor of this fight. The press is expecting it.’
“‘If you need me, I’ll be in my office.’ The Mayor was on his way.” Ali, understanding the mayor’s situation, offered: “‘If the Mayor won’t appear at the press conference, that’s all right. I’ll only be here a short while, he’s got to live here all of his life. As far as I’m concerned — (I was looking directly at him) — his word is good enough for me. He says he supports the fight. He doesn’t have to be at any press conference.’ A look of relief crossed the Mayor’s face… Then he turned toward the door and said, ‘My Vice-Mayor (Maynard Jackson) will be there to represent me. If the press wants me to verify anything, I’ll be in my office…’
“Johnson pulled out one of his long, thin cigars and stuck it in the Mayor’s breast pocket.”
With the license secured for Ali’s comeback, attention was now focused on securing an opponent. Sen. Johnson told the interviewer from the AJC that he got on a plane and flew to Philadelphia. Retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington, then an Atlanta city councilman, accompanied Johnson, and they met with Joe Frazier’s managers. According to Johnson and Arrington, Frazier’s managers agreed that Frazier would fight, if Johnson could first arrange an exhibition bout, which would prove that Ali, indeed, had a license in Atlanta.
The exhibition was held in the Morehouse College gymnasium. The college, one of the historically black institutions of higher learning that make up the well-known Atlanta University Center, is the alma mater of both Johnson and Maynard Jackson. Martin King, Jr., and Julian Bond were also alums.
The match went off without a hitch in front of a packed house, but Frazier and his people backed out of the deal. Speculation had it that Frazier was on the road with his singing group — Smokin’ Joe and the Knockouts — and was out of shape, and didn’t want to risk a fight with Ali in that condition. Ali had taken on three other challengers during the exhibition and re-established his boxing bona fides, even though it was clear he was a little rusty from the long layoff.
From the beginning of their efforts, the Atlanta committee’s hopes — and plans — were focused on an Ali-Frazier match as the centerpiece of their bold move to show the world Atlanta could pull off an event that many had said was impossible. But with Frazier unavailable, the resurrection team’s effort turned toward finding a suitable replacement, even though anything short of the dream marquee — Ali and Frazier, both already superstars of the ring — might not be as big a draw.
But Johnson was confident that the mere fact of Ali’s return to the ring after nearly three-and-a-half years of exile — given all of the drama and political wrangling surrounding it — would get the world’s attention in a big way, and be a win for all involved, including having a percentage of the earnings go to a chartable effort Mayor Massell was backing, which, according to Ali, Sen. Johnson referred to as the “Mayor’s anti-dope campaign.”
Any challenger, however, would have to be seen as worthy in the eyes of both those in the boxing world and members of the paying audience. Jerry Quarry, a high-ranking heavyweight with a good record and a reputation for being a solid puncher, and a tough customer, fit the bill.
Since Quarry was white, Ali initially had the notion he could hype the fight by spinning a scenario pitting a reviled black man in the ring against another Great White Hope, leaning on his knowledge of the atmosphere surrounding one of the biggest fights of early black champion, Jack Johnson’s career. In his book, however, he said he decided to back off from that initial urge. He also recounted a scene with Civil Rights Activist Jesse Jackson, just before the Quarry fight:
“I am stretched out on the bed for the last rest. It’s four hours before the fight, and the phone keeps ringing with good luck calls — Whitney Young, Martin Luther King’s mother and his wife Coretta, Jack Lemmon, Anthony Quinn, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda … I try to doze off, but in the kitchen I hear the Reverend Jesse Jackson telling Bundini [one of Ali’s corner men and trainers] what he thinks the fight is all about.
“Even though Jesse and I have different religious views, we’re of the same generation. ‘A lot came out of our generation,’ I hear him say. ‘A lot came out of the black generation before us, too.’
“‘There was a lot of Toms,’ Bundini says.
“‘Tom was a circus,’ Jesse says. ‘Tom was a Chinaman’s game whipped on the white man. Without Tom, we wouldn’t be getting ready for this battle today. This ain’t a fight. It’s a war between two schools of thought. Whether he wants to or not, Quarry represents the establishment. Nothing shows the sickness in American society more than a prizefight between a White Hope and a black man. This fight is about democracy and how it is practiced by people like Maddox, [Vice President Spiro] Agnew, [Alabama Governor George] Wallace, [President Richard] Nixon on the one hand, and ordinary people, black and white, on the other. I’m glad to see it happening in Martin Luther King’s hometown. He would it have loved it this way.'”
On Like A Neck Bone
Monday, October 26, 1970 wasn’t an ordinary day in the city: It was, I suppose, the icing on the cake of a long, jam-packed sports weekend that had plunged the city into an uncommonly rich feast of sports excitement and revelry it had not experienced until that time: There was a Georgia Tech-Tulane football game; the Atlanta Hawks faced the Boston Celtics in an NBA match-up; and the Atlanta Falcons squared off against the New Orleans Saints, in an NFL game that Quarry, Ali’s opponent, attended.
According to “Knockout, An Oral History of Atlanta and the Fight Nobody Wanted,” which was published by Atlanta Magazine in 2005: “Ali-Quarry becomes part of what Mayor [Sam] Massell calls Atlanta’s ‘sports spectacular weekend’ … Over the weekend, journalists and the fight crowd congregate at the newly opened Hyatt Regency. Designed by architect/developer John Portman, the hotel is the first to incorporate his trademark atrium-lobby and glass-enclosed elevators … Atlanta found itself on the world’s sports map, paving the way for two Super Bowls, two Final Fours, and of course, the 1996 Summer Olympics [where, appropriately, Ali lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies.]”
I would add, the city also hosted the 1988 Democratic Convention; has just been awarded its third National Football League Super Bowl (for 2019); and has often been the site of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, which has more than once featured the eventual college football national champion. All of that, and the city’s recognition as one of the nation’s top convention destinations, I believe, were ignited by the boxing match nobody, except Atlanta, wanted; a fight that was a springboard to a reputation as a major player on the world stage.
To be an “international city,” you first had to establish that you were a major player in the U.S. Ali-Quarry certainly helped Atlanta prove it could run with the big dogs.
Hotels had been doing brisk business all weekend leading up to the fight, with the other sporting contests in town. But the real onslaught would come as a result of the boxing match. The fight was a huge draw.
In that magnificent oral history of the event published in Atlanta Magazine, several prominent attendees recalled what they witnessed at the time. Stan Sanders, an attorney, and noted as the first African-American Rhodes Scholar, described those in attendance, thusly: “I had never seen that kind of convocation of African-Americans. There were the civil rights leaders — I remember running into Whitney Young in the lobby — and the prominent businessmen, and there were famous African-American athletes. But there were also the hustlers and gangsters, with names like ‘Sacramento Joe’ and ‘Detroit Slim.’ And these guys were coming through in their mink and ermine coats and their bejeweled fingers and necklaces, the chicks on their arms. The pimps and the drug dealers were dressed better than the chicks.”
Pee Wee Kirkland, listed as a New York street-yard basketball legend, talked about the excitement that filled him and his partners: “We went down to Atlanta in a fleet of cars — something like 25 cars, tailgating one another. I bought 500 tickets for the fight, all ringside, because I thought it would be real good if a lot of people from Harlem that I grew up with was able to see Ali in ringside seats.”
Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s well-known personal physician and corner man, described the scene this way: “It was a freak show. Everyone was smoking grade-A pot. It’s funny because they were celebrating with a man — Ali — who never touched the stuff.”
Boxing historian, Burt Sugar, was in awe of the scene at the newly opened Regency Hyatt Hotel. Many of the weekend’s events took place at the downtown hotel, where Ali and many of the fans were staying. “It was un-f-ing believable,” Sugar said. “They had these see-through glass elevators that rose up from the lobby. I remember watching as Ali was ascending, and they were cheering him. It was like some scene from a sci-fi movie: The god was rising and the people were cheering. It was 1984-ish, in 1970.”
Sugar also called the event that night “the greatest collection of black money and black power ever assembled until that time. Right in the heart of the old Confederacy, it was Gone With the Wind turned upside-down.”
Novelist, screenwriter and boxing journalist, Budd Schulberg, also recalled a scene from the hotel. “The bartender was a real white cracker. I thought he was going to have a heart attack when these hustlers came in and put wads of money on the bar, hundreds and hundreds of dollars.”
Civil rights leader, and former Georgia State Legislator, Julian Bond, gave Thomas Houser, who has been called Ali’s definitive biographer, what I consider to be revelatory comments about that weekend: “Then we went to the fight, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen. The black elite of America was there. It was a coronation; the King regaining his throne. I remember meeting Mary Wilson of the Supremes and saying, ‘My God, Mary Wilson and I are at the same event.’ The whole audience was composed of stars; legitimate stars, underworld stars. You had all these people from the fast lane who were there, and the style of dress was fantastic. Men in ankle-length fur coats; women wearing smiles and pearls and not much else. Then the fight started. I was sitting behind this youngish blond woman, and all through it I kept hitting her on the back in my excitement. And she was so excited, she never turned around and told me to stop. All I can remember saying was, ‘Stick him, Ali! Stick him!’ It was more than a fight, and it was an important moment for Atlanta, because that night, Atlanta came into its own as the black political capital of America.”
The scene was the old Municipal Auditorium, now a part of Georgia State University. Then-councilman Arrington, who was on the committee that was responsible for oversight of the auditorium, had been instrumental in securing it as the venue for the fight. It officially held only 5,000, but the night of the fight, according to published reports, 5,100 to 5,200 people were sandwiched into the old arena. And, as we used to say in the hood, “It’s was on like a neck bone,” and some rice and collard greens on the side.
As has already been noted, this was not the usual fight crowd. To say it was highly partisan, in favor of the champion, who had not lost his title in the ring, but had been stripped of it by government fiat, would be an understatement. Though Quarry did have his supporters, most of the eager onlookers were not there merely to watch a boxing match; were not students of the sweet science, drawn like moths to the technical aspects of boxing, or the brutal beauty of controlled violence and domination. These moths were drawn by a different flame, the man who was more than simply a finely tuned specimen of the sport. To many in the crowd, Ali was a king in exile, whose throne had been snatched from him, and they expected him to take it back (even though this particular fight was not a title match.) And they wanted to believe he could, eventually, win back his crown. He had defied incredible odds already, had gone toe-to-toe with the mighty selective service board, the Goliath federal government, boxing commissions in dozens of states; governors, mayors, city officials, the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Council. Even veterans’ organizations and vociferous Americans had sent him hate mail, even death threats. One governor, who later became president of the United States, had declared, “That draft dodger will never fight in my state. ”
But, Ali was still standing, right there in that ring, where he ruled like few before him. So many were there to support him, to shout out about his courage, his willingness to take on the foes they, themselves, would love to confront, but lacked the muscle or the courage. He was a hero, a man who suffered for what he believed, a man who defied the draft for religious and philosophical reasons, who had said he had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Of course they wanted him to win this fight, and the larger battle. And they damn sure were going to let him know they supported him. And so, they urged him on, this brave iconoclast in boxing gloves, who understood the sweet science, yes, but through his gumption and force of will — and perhaps his faith — had risen high above that.
He had paid the price for his defiance, even the stripping of his livelihood. Yet, he refused to bow when offered a chance to apologize, take a figurehead position in the Army, show off his patriotic pride, and then be able to resume his lucrative career. He had said, “no,” to the powers that be in a way that thousands, no millions, wished they had the guts to do. He had declared his manhood before the throne of white male society and said, “I’ll take what you dish out, but I am a man, I believe in my religion, I love my God — and no matter what you do to me, you can’t change that.”
He had been defiant and stood his ground. And so many of us — from the maids on their knees scrubbing kitchen floors in houses they’d never own; to those still working the fields, cropping tobacco, picking fruits and vegetables for the tables at which they would never sit; for those like my father, who spent scorching-hot days digging foundations and pouring basements and driveways for subdivisions he would not dare walk through at night; for nappy-headed high school and college students, like me, still trying to understand this thing called “Black Power,” and if it was real; to the educated black, brown and yellow workers, who, despite their hard work and talent, would never have an equal opportunity to grow and prosper, because the vagaries of life and genetics had landed them on the dark side of the tracks.
And here before the on-looking world was this young, vibrant, beautiful man, who had been kicked and scorned, had his life threatened, had been called a draft-dodging Muslim Nigger — was still standing. He was Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Nat Turner, Paul Robeson, Jim Brown and Jackie Robinson all in one. On that day, with our towering hero in that ring, we had already won, even before the bell rang for the first round.
For Ali, too, it was a momentous occasion, one that would be a life-changing moment in more ways than one. Not the least of which was finances. After years of scrambling to keep his head above water financially, scrambling to pay mounting legal fees, back taxes, current living expenses, and alimony to his first wife, the exiled heavyweight boxing champion was finally in for a big pay day that would set the tone for future earnings. And not a moment too soon.
In the interim between his draft-evasion conviction in 1967 and his return to the ring in 1970, Ali had tried to feed his family and keep up with a stuffed portfolio of debts by turning to an eclectic assortment of gigs, including speaking engagements — mostly on college campuses (which would turn out to be a major factor in his rising from merely a great boxer to icon status); acting on Broadway (“Big Time Buck White”) and in a documentary about his life, and even participating in a computerized boxing match against the legendary Rocky Marciano.
But now, with a pulsating and fidgety crowd, having paid at least $100 a pop for ringside seats, and closed-circuit revenue from more than 200 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, and millions more watching around the world, the total take was expected to be $3 million. According to published reports, Ali had signed for a guaranteed purse of $200,000, against 42.5 percent of gross revenues, while Quarry’s take was to be $150,000, or 22.5 percent of the haul — a solid payday for both.
The fight, itself, was not the masterpiece so often associated with Muhammad Ali, but that didn’t seem to matter to the mostly Ali-leaning fans who cheered him on as if it were comparable to his later “Thrillas:” the three slugfests with Joe Frazier, the rope-a-dope classic of boxing strategy against George Foreman, and the classic demonstration of his courage and fortitude in the bout against Ken Norton where Ali finished the match despite having suffered a broken jaw in the early rounds.
It could be said that this fight was anti-climatic. The scheduled 15-rounder only lasted three, as Quarry’s corner signaled an end to the contest when his handlers refused to let him answer the bell for the fourth round. It was the right decision. Although Quarry had landed some blows against Ali, and had proved in the past, he could a take punch, he had an ugly cut above his eye. Blood was flowing from it, severely limiting his vision. He could not adequately defend himself.
Ali won on a TKO (a technical knockout.) Quarry was clearly disappointed, initially, defiant. He believed he had delivered a shot to Ali’s kidney that had done some damage. He wanted to continue, but eventually realized his corner had made the right call. The disappointed challenger had to take whatever solace he could in knowing that he had not been a patsy, not a straw man to be stepped over by Ali in climbing back onto his throne. He was a worthy opponent, a tough boxer, who had moved up in the rankings after defeating a number-one contender.
As Burt Sugar said years later: “Ali’s comeback fight was not against a ham-and-egger or a tomato can or resume builder — call it what you will. It was against one of the top 10 heavyweights, and Quarry had balls enough to take the fight.”
Gil Clancy, Quarry’s former trainer, added: “Jerry was one of the best all-round fighters that I ever trained. He could do it all. He could punch with either hand, and he could take a punch better than anyone outside of Ali.”
Muhammad Ali, though undoubtedly the favorite, had not been the superbly conditioned, polished boxer and lightning-fast ring artisan he had been before the layoff. He showed flashes of his former self, but he’d had only six weeks to prepare for the bout. But he did enough to win, and for his overjoyed fans, that was enough. The truth is that, for a ton of reasons — both cosmic and worldly — that night belonged to Ali. And Atlanta.
That fight, with all of the political maneuvering that preceded it — the calling in of big chits, the world-wide publicity and the spotlight it focused on the boxer and the city — changed everything for both Ali and Atlanta. A few months later, New York State granted Ali a boxing license. He was in demand for fights again. He had a whole new attitude: He was no longer straining to see the end of that murky tunnel, but could see clearly, now, the bright, glowing daylight of a future that seemed brighter than ever.
For Atlanta, particularly its black leaders, Ali-Quarry was a game-changer. They were validated in a way they had not known before. Suddenly, it was clear they had a mandate to govern without hanging on to the old baggage, the persistent — though well-meaning — cautions from old-guard black leaders to remain patient and not push the envelope too quickly. Something extremely important had happened that was revealed largely through that weekend experience in October of 1970. Political power in the city was really theirs. They could get things done, even without the full cooperation — or the enthusiastic blessings — of the white leadership.
Even though those white leaders still controlled the money and the business connections around the country, and the world — for that matter — the new-guard black leaders, such as Jackson and Arrington, with older leaders, such as Leroy Johnson bridging the gap, could now move forward more boldly with their own vision, and through means, perhaps, not even contemplated by their predecessors.
Since some time in the early ’60s, there had been a group of black and white business leaders — 10 to 12 whites and 10 to 12 blacks — who would meet informally (in shirtsleeves, on Saturdays, once a month) to discuss civic issues, cooperation between the races, integration, white flight, and economic and business concerns, among other topics. The group, which called itself the Action Forum, met privately, out of the eyes of the media, and much of its work was done behind the scenes. Even though its membership was divided equally between blacks and whites, there was a kind of imbalance that I don’t think many of its members would acknowledge.
I believe the white members, such as Mills B. Lane, the head of Citizens and Southern Bank, considered by many the most power man in the city at that time; Paul Austin, the president of The Coca-Cola Company; Dave Garrett, president of Delta Airlines; John Portman, world-renown architect-developer, and Tom Cousins, a major real estate developer, who would later own The Atlanta Hawks NBA team for awhile, carried a bit more weight, simply because they had been at the top of the business world longer — before most of the elite black business leaders at the table were powerful in their own right.
Because of segregation and prejudice, they had not been playing at the premier table of business in America for long. Men such as Jesse Hill, head of Atlanta Life Insurance company, and publisher of one of the city’s black newspapers; James Paschal, who, with his brother, Robert, owned Paschal’s restaurant and a hotel adjoining it; Bill Calloway, president of Calloway Enterprises, which included one of the city’s largest real estate companies; John Cox, a vice president at Delta Airlines, and Herman Russell, a developer, whose fingerprints were all over projects and major developments around the city.
I don’t mean that as a knock on anyone; It’s just the way things were in those days. The Action Forum certainly helped pull together some of the most important decisions and civic projects in Atlanta history, including the building of the MARTA Rail Transit System, and desegregation of the city’s schools. Even though they were men who clearly heard– and heeded — the call to civic duty, they were businessmen primarily; they were somewhat patrician, and their major focus was on economic development, the viability of downtown, minimizing white flight and keeping the city attractive to investors.
They — for the most part — were not ground soldiers acutely focused on conditions for those living on life’s hard dirt, where desperation simmered like an unhealthy stew. Even so, the equation of power and money was balanced in favor of white leaders and powerful moneyed interests. That, in turn, had a controlling drag on young black leadership, encouraging them to take the “safer,” more-patient approach.
But Ali-Quarry changed that: It freed members of the new leadership class to follow their hearts and their own minds a lot more; to check in more often with grassroots residents, who, like them, were tired of the “go-slow” approach. It truly was a new day, one that would bring its own headaches and hiccups, for sure, but one that gave the city’s young, black leaders freedom their parents and grandparents certainly never had.
From that point on, however, there would be many lessons learned by this new guard. While power is an extremely sought-after and situation-changing tool, it is but one ingredient in governing successfully. The old-guard black leaders, the Action Forum and other members of the white leadership structure could not be overlooked. On its own, the new black leadership could not attract Super Bowls, major political conventions, and certainly not the Olympic Games. It would still need to manage the input of the old-guard blacks and the city’s white leadership, their connections, knowledge, influence — and their goodwill.
By 1975, Muhammad Ali was back on the throne, and his star was ascending worldwide. He was world heavyweight champion again, having defeated a man who was so big, so imposing and hit so hard, Ali compared his punching power to that of Ernie Shavers, about whom he once said, “He hit me so hard, he shook my kinfolks back in Africa.”
The 25-year-old champion Ali defeated to take the title in 1974 was George Foreman, who, at the time, had won 40 bouts, 37 by knockouts. He had beaten both Joe Frazier, from whom he won the title belt, and Ken Norton, who had won a decision over Ali a year earlier, after breaking his jaw in the opening rounds of their match.
The title fight with Foreman, promoted as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” was fought in Kinshasa, Zaire, a country now known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was an unusual event for a number of reasons, including its setting. Freddie Pacheco, Ali’s former doctor, is quoted by Thomas Houser, in his book, “Muhammad Ali; His Life and Times,” as saying: “When Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire … this fight was supposed to be an all-black show. A black promoter [Don King], two black champions, a black country, the height of black consciousness …” It was also the fight that gave the world Ali’s surprisingly effective ring strategy that came to be known as “Rope-a-dope;” although, Ali, himself, has said that he did not develop the strategy before the fight, but that necessity was truly the mother of invention, as he decided on the approach during the fight. He came out strong in the early rounds and soon realized he was tiring. At that point, he said, he decided to lean on the ropes, stretching way back, allowing Foreman to punch his arms and shoulders at will, while he quickly moved his head back, and from side to side, to dodge any head shots. He used his arms and hands to block the fierce uppercuts, for which Foreman was known. Many doubt the tactic was created in the ring, however. Some of Foreman’s supporters, including those in his corner, suspected that Ali’s trainer and chief corner man, Angelo Dundee, had actually loosened the ropes to allow his fighter to lean farther back, with more room to dodge Foreman’s shots to the head. Ali’s people denied that charge.
The tactic worked exquisitely, however, with Foreman tiring himself by launching punch after punch, until in the eighth round, Ali floored him. Foreman hesitated in getting up, but did make it to his feet by the count of nine, but the referee stopped the fight, deciding it was over. King Ali was back, and his legend growing by leaps and bounds.
The champ was still basking in the afterglow of his triumph in the jungle when the next pivotal episode in his relationship with the City of Atlanta occurred. On January 21, 1975, Maynard Jackson, who had been vice mayor during Ali’s triumphant comeback nearly five years earlier, was now mayor. He had defeated the incumbent, Sam Massell, in a contest that had turned nasty near the end. The general election had a crowded field, with both black and white contenders, including former State Sen. Leroy Johnson. With no clear winner there, Jackson and Massell faced off in a runoff. Jackson had been the highest vote-getter, with Massell in second place. For Massell, though, the writing was on the wall, almost as soon as the runoff was announced. But he refused to believe his time at the helm was drawing near. In desperation, he launched an ill-advised salvo, unworthy of the progressive, forward-looking leader he had seemed to be during his tenure. It was like an uppercut in the ring that knocks out the puncher rather than the opponent. It was particularly puzzling given the way political power had migrated from the boardrooms of white business leaders and the country clubs and dinner tables of their long-entrenched families, to the rough hands of black domestics, road workers and barbers, and the growing class of educated, professional black folks finally understanding what their votes could accomplish.
It was a predictable change, but one that still seemed to catch many in the more-privileged class by surprise. Massell, even though he had won the office in the previous election with a lion’s share of the black vote, apparently didn’t understand the gravity of his mistake during the election of 1973 — until it was too late. Even though Jackson was not a unanimous choice of the city’s black leadership — some thought Massell had done a good enough job to deserve re-election — most indicators strongly suggested that Maynard Jackson was heavily favored by black voters. When it was clear the vote was not going to turn in his favor, Massell blitzed Atlanta with billboards declaring: “Atlanta is too young to die.” The grenades of condemnation were quickly launched from multiple bunkers around the city, including one from Atlanta Constitution Editorial Page Editor Hal Gulliver. With a taut, but cutting remark, he exposed the implicit racism of Massell’s ad campaign: “Sam’s problem: Niggers.”
By this time, I was a young reporter with the city’s afternoon paper, The Atlanta Journal, which, like the morning paper, The Atlanta Constitution, was owned by Cox Enterprises, Inc. I had begun as an intern in the Journal’s sports department in the summer of 1972, but after a year of covering games and writing features about sports figures, I moved into news, and was one of the reporters assigned to cover the 1973 city election.
Maynard Jackson won the mayor’s office with just under sixty percent of the vote.
I first met Jackson in 1967. I was a rising high school senior, and was visiting two of my best buddies — brothers, Gene and Jonnie Keith, who lived on Chavelle Lane in East Atlanta. We were hanging around outside the house when we noticed a tall, portly, light-skinned man, with dark, slicked-back hair; an attractive woman and a young girl, approaching us. The man, who reminded me for all the world of the “Watkins Man” — the overweight, white salesman, who went door-to-door in my neighborhood, driving a loaded-down, massive station wagon, filled with cosmetics, cleaning supplies, rugs, chenille bedspreads and other household products. He was much shorter than the stranger approaching us, but their skin color was close and the slicked-back hair similar. The Watkins man always wore a hat — either felt or straw, depending on the season — and he always seemed to have a handkerchief, with which he was forever wiping his brow and the inside band of his hat. He always seemed to be hot and nearly out of breath, especially after he climbed the several steps from the sidewalk up to our front door.
When I’d open the door, he would be standing there, wheezing, wiping his brow. “Yo’ momma home?” he would ask in almost a whisper, and I would notice his shirts — visible from the gap where the two sides of his suit jacket didn’t meet in the front– were drenched with perspiration and clung to his body. If Mama wasn’t home, or had told me to tell him she wasn’t, the disappointment on his face was palpable. It was clear he had been hoping to get a chance to sit a spell and cool down a little before making the trek back down those stairs to that hot car.
The stranger on Chevelle Lane had his hand out by the time he was within three feet of us. There was a huge smile on his face. He reached back and urged his wife and their daughter to come on up, too. He identified himself as Maynard Jackson, and said his wife’s name was Bunnie. I cannot recall whether he gave their daughter’s name or simply said, “This is our daughter.” The three of us shook his hand. He said they were out meeting neighbors and letting them know he was planning to challenge U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge in the elections next year and would appreciate our vote.
Jonnie Keith was a bit older than Gene and I, so he might have been registered to vote. Gene and I weren’t, but we were a little shocked by this stranger’s pronouncement, because — although we didn’t know who he was — we certainly knew who Sen. Talmadge was. His family was all over our Georgia History books at school. His daddy — Gene — had been governor of the state, and the son had once staked a claimed on the governorship, himself, during a raucous period of confusion in the state’s history when there were multiple claims on the governor’s office. So, how could this young man, whom we agreed was black, even though he might have been light enough to pass, figure he could challenge a state political legend. We shook our heads and watched Maynard Jackson and his family move on down the street.
The next year, he did challenge Talmadge in the senate election. The incumbent beat him handily to retain his seat. But there was an interesting twist: Maynard Jackson had beaten the long-time senator rather handily in Atlanta, which started the wheels turning in Jackson’s head, and prompted Talmadge to work harder to bolster his appeal within the city limits.
When I next encountered Jackson, it was during assignments around time, where he was speaking to business groups, public housing residents and at press conferences at City Hall. By then, he had trimmed down weight-wise and the slicked-back hair had been replaced by a curly Afro. The Watkins Man was gone. He might have still been lighter than paper-sack brown, but his looks now, and his politics, made it clear he was one of us — African American — and putting in place reforms that would assure equal rights and economic opportunities for people of color was high on his radar.
Not long into his tenure as mayor, he made two announcements that shook up the status quo, particularly the white business community, the big banks and the silver-spoon crowd. He was going to transform the city’s airport, building a new mid-field terminal that would accommodate larger jets and make other improvements that would service not just the city’s, but the region’s transportation needs well into the future. Delta Airlines, a major carrier was on board, but some in the business community had many questions. What shook them even more, however, was what he announced next: Majority companies, hoping to be involved in the massive airport project would have to have a minority, joint-venture partner who had at least twenty percent of the job. Any that did not meet that requirement, should not apply for consideration.
He added that, what was now being called the Minority Business Enterprise Program (MBE), would apply to all city contracts. Several of the big-dog operators in the city, who were usually shoo-ins for major contracts, initially balked. But Jackson stood his ground, even threatened that the city would remove its deposits from major banks and other institutions that failed to get on board with the MBE provisions. It was a new day, and Jackson’s plan — after some hiccups — took off. The “new” airport, for example, was opened in 1980. It had been completed on time, and within budget. With Jackson’s success, other cities around the country, particularly those with black mayors or considerable black representation on the city level, adopted similar programs. So much so, that Black Enterprise Magazine, once referred to Jackson as “The Great Equalizer.” At the forefront of his concerns was trying to level the playing field for minority residents of Atlanta, particularly those with small and medium-sized businesses, who, too often in the past, simply had no hope of securing lucrative public sector contracts that would help them grow their businesses, their wealth, and improve the fortunes of the city’s black, brown and yellow residents. The program was later expanded to include women-owned businesses.
Jackson’s emphasis on making sure the rights of African-American citizens were protected, was shared by the members of the new Atlanta City Council, many of whom were also recently elected. According to retired Superior Court judge, Marvin Arrington, then a member of the city council, concern over securing those rights “dominated Jackson’s agenda.” In his autobiography, “Making My Mark: The Story of a Man Who Wouldn’t Stay in His Place,” Arrington wrote that “critics claimed he [Jackson] tried to force change in a heavy-handed way, but it was hard to argue with his goals. One of his first initiatives was to bring more blacks into city government. This process went forward smoothly, but changing the police department was a different matter.
“We tried to establish a working relationship with John Inman, the police chief, but he took offense. He basically said that he didn’t need us to tell him how to run the police department. We didn’t want to run the police department directly; however, we all wanted to end the long-standing practice of looking the other way when police, usually white, were unnecessarily rough with black suspects and prisoners.
“I was chairman of the [city council’s] Public Safety Committee,” Arrington wrote, “and was happy to jump into the battle. I criticized Inman publicly and he responded by calling me ‘an irrational individual who goes off half-cocked.’ In one of my less guarded moments, I stepped beyond the bounds of propriety when I answered, ‘I may be irrational, but John Inman is one of the dumbest men I’ve ever met in my life.’
“In a more civil tone, I later said it was time for John Inman to move on. We needed new leadership. But he fought us tooth and nail. Finally, we got the votes on the city council to fire him, but he refused to leave. When Maynard Jackson appointed Clinton Chafin to go down and take over as police chief, Inman had his allies armed to prevent Chafin from going into the chief’s office. I was there that day, and I thought there was going to be a shootout.”
Even though Inman took the matter to court, Jackson and the city council resolved the situation by what Arrington called “an end run;” re-organizing city government to create the position of public safety commissioner, “to whom Inman would have to report.” But even with Inman “out of the way,” it was clear that long-standing practices in the paramilitary organization, with its ingrained set of unwritten rules, were difficult to erase. There had been several cases of young, black males, who wound up dead in skirmishes with police, even though many, if not most of the victims, were unarmed. And there were several clashes between the police and members of the Black Muslim community.
Skirmishes and altercations would flair up downtown and in other areas, likely owing to the refusal of many of the Black Muslim newspaper sellers and other vendors to readily genuflect to police officers, or give them the “proper” respect they had always demanded, particularly from black men in general — and black youths in particular. The Muslims would often stand their ground and demand to know what they were being accused of doing. Clearly, in the minds of many police officers, it wasn’t their place to make such demands. Some of these clashes drew considerable attention. Not long before his tenure as mayor began, there was a major incident involving three Black Muslim men and several police officers. In his book, Marvin Arrington describes the incident this way: “Early one afternoon, Atlanta police had started to arrest three black Muslims in front of the Woolworth store on Forsyth Street after an altercation between them and a street preacher. The police efforts led to a fight during which one of the Muslims snatched the gun from the holster of one of the officers. He shot one policemen to death and wounded another in the leg.”
Arrington said a Muslim attorney he knew called him from New York and asked if he wound defend the young men. He told the attorney he couldn’t take the case; that it would be a conflict of interest for him, since he also served on the Atlanta City Council. “However,” he said, “I did agree to let the men know that a lawyer of their faith was in the process of arranging counsel for them. I went down to the city jail and signed in. To my surprise, one of the men charged was a friend from Clark College [Arrington’s alma mater], who in those days was known as James ‘Sticky’ Collins. I was not surprised to discover that the dead man’s fellow officers had beaten all three defendants mercilessly. I let them know that legal help was on the way and left.”
There continued to be “problems” between Black Muslims and the police, and members of the religion also began to experience more and more distrust from residents, including many in the black community. But, I want to make it clear that use of unnecessary force by police officers was not prevalent just among the Black Muslim community: It was a problem in the larger Afro-American community, although situations involving young Muslim men became a story line that seemed to linger in our memories. But to demonstrate the seriousness of the overall problem of brutal police aggression, I dug up an article from August of 1977, three years after Maynard Jackson took office as mayor. It was reported and written by Acel Moore, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers. Moore contrasted the demonstrable incidents of dangerous police aggression, between 1977 and when Jackson took office in ’74.
He wrote: “What has happened in Atlanta is that several basic changes have been made within the police department to eliminate the use of unnecessary force and to win the trust of the black population here — a population that until three years ago, tended to regard the department as a brutal enemy.”
He then references civil rights leader, preacher and businessman, Hosea Williams, who told him Atlanta’s blacks, who make up 60 percent of its 500,000 residents were so incensed by what they considered “senseless, cold-blooded murders by police that they were ready to tear the town apart.”
“In 1973 and 1974,” Moore wrote, “Atlanta’s 1,600-member police force killed 37 people, most of them young black males. On a per capita basis, according to statistics gathered by the Georgia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, Atlanta’s police were killing citizens at a rate five times greater than New York’s and three times greater than Chicago’s.
“Last year, however,” his article said, “five people were killed by police, and in none of those instances” were there charges of police using unnecessary force. At the same time, “force against the police is also down. In 1973, four policemen were killed in the line of duty. Last year, one was.”
In addition to making changes in the police department, pushing it toward being what he believed it should be — a thoroughly professional organization that viewed itself as a part of the community, rather than an occupying force — Mayor Jackson sought, in 1975, other ways to smooth relations in his, sometimes, tense city. He knew the bad publicity was not conducive to the kind of growth and prosperity he desired.
In conjunction with leaders of the Black Muslim community, he came up with what he believed would be a good way to calm things and begin to repair the rifts the city was experiencing. It was a bold public relations move, couched in the cover of a festival to promote black businesses, and, of course, Black Muslim businesses. It would be held at the old Lakewood Fairgrounds, and the city would promote it heavily. All would be invited. The centerpiece, certainly the big draw, was to be the most widely known, and, perhaps, most-respected Black Muslim on earth — Muhammad Ali, who, again, was the boxing world’s heavyweight champion, having rope-a-doped his way past former champion, George Foreman, the year before.
It was a clever move, and Jackson knew Ali was still grateful to the city for being the only municipality that would give him a license and a venue from which to launch his comeback. He challenged the champ to an exhibition boxing match — three rounds — to benefit black businesses in the city. In true Ali fashion, Jackson even read a poem for the media, written by his then-press secretary, Pearl Cleage. In the poem, he boasted that he was going to whip the champ, and what he would do to him in various rounds.
Ali accepted the “challenge,” but because this was not a serious match, you won’t find it listed among many of the chronicles of Muhammad Ali’s career. But for his friend in Atlanta — Mayor Jackson — and members in his beloved Black Muslim community, it was a serious matter, even, if Ali and Jackson made it as much fun for the audience as a Vaudeville, or old Chitlin’ Circuit routine.
My newspaper had tried to figure out how to dig deeper into what was happening in the Muslim community as it was seemingly becoming more and more at odds with the larger community. The clashes with other downtown vendors, street preachers and the police were thought to be symptoms of some deeper problem. My editors assigned me to spend time in the Muslim community, attend events, talk to Black Muslim leaders and regular members, to try to demystify the community and give other residents good information about their beliefs, goals and ideals. It was an assignment that gave me pause. I made it clear that I would not seek to go undercover — even though that had not been suggested. But I wanted it clear that I had no intention of going about this in any way other than straight up, as a reporter looking to learn as much about the community as I could. I, personally, had been aware of Black Muslims for many years, had, of course followed Ali, and also Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad whenever I’d see them on television, or in articles in newspapers. As a teenager, I and my male friends were impressed by the spit-and-polish and no-nonsense demeanor of the Fruit of Islam, who we saw as elite body guards for Elijah Muhammad and other prominent Muslims. They were always sharply dressed, with close-cropped hair, and appeared to be extremely well-trained and highly professional. We would also talk to the young, well-dressed men we would see selling the organization’s newspaper — Muhammad Speaks — on street corners.
Yet, there was still something mysterious about them and their aura; they didn’t smoke or eat pork, which I had naively believed was strictly a Jewish thing. In one sense, I admired them, because they seemed to have direction; to know where they going, and why. They were polite, but firm. We were always told by others that they didn’t “take any shit.” You had to watch how you acted and what you said around them. On the other hand, I realized that my knowledge of them didn’t go deeper than the cloth of their shiny suits, or the leather of their spit-polished wing tips. I took the assignment and ran with it. I made as many contacts in the Black Muslim community as I could, telling those I encountered I wanted to be able to give the wider community, particularly many black folks, who appeared to be opposed to them, a clearer picture of who they were, what they believed, what they wanted, and how they viewed the larger African-American community.
Many of them were apprehensive with me, at first. But I kept trying. I would talk to the guys on the street corners, selling Muhammad Speaks, and others selling bean pies. I met a lot of men with names such as Harold, Charles and James, but they told me their last names were: “4X,” or “6X,” or some other combination of a number and the letter “X.” And they explained that the “X” meant they were casting aside their slave name, so, if they were formerly Johnson or Pryor, the X meant they were no longer those names. They said, since most black people were brought here as slaves, and their names were changed by their slave owners, they didn’t know their real family names.
It made a lot of sense to me, and it should have, because it was the truth. Several of the men, and a few women I met in this way (women were much more caution of me and my questions,) kept referring me to Minister Abdul Rahman at the Atlanta Mosque. When I met him, he was gracious and spent a lot of time explaining the religion to me. He showed me the mosque. I attended a few services there, even a Founder’s Day program that drew a large crowd. The first time I attended a service, I was surprised to see that men and women sat on opposite sides of the room, with a center aisle separating them. I already knew it was the custom for women to cover their bodies. Modesty was a key component in what they believed. I later found out that Rahman was a close friend and spiritual brother to Muhammad Ali, having spent considerable time with him in Miami and Atlanta, beginning when Ali was young in the faith. As part of the openness of Minister Rahman and others, I was allowed to visit the Clara Muhammad School, which was named after the wife of Nation Of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad. I was impressed by the cleanliness of the school, the quiet and orderliness of the hallways and classrooms. In the parking lots at the mosque and the school, I noticed several maroon-colored vans with the inscription, “I Am With Muhammad,” on their sides.
I wrote a series of articles explaining that Elijah Muhammad taught his followers that they were a part of the “only true Nation of Islam in the wilderness of North America.” That the desire for separatism from whites was not racial hatred, but the result of knowing that communities thrived best that controlled their own destinies, and based on long, bitter experience, from living in a world controlled by whites. Some members explained it to me, using language similar to What Muhammad Ali later told his biographer, Thomas Houser: “I don’t hate nobody and I ain’t lynched nobody. We Muslims don’t hate the white man. It’s like we don’t hate a tiger; but we know that a tiger’s nature is not compatible with people’s nature since tigers love to eat people. So we don’t want to live with tigers
“It’s the same with the white man. The white race attacks black people. They don’t ask what’s your religion, what’s your belief ? They just start whuppin heads. They don’t ask if you are Catholic, are you a Baptist, are you a Black Muslim, are you a Martin Luther King follower, are you with Whitney Young? They just go whop, whop, whop! So we don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.”
They also told me that those who financed and built their own housing, didn’t have to settle for substandard housing at exorbitant rents; those who controlled their own banks, didn’t have to fear being redlined for loans; those who owned their own stores, shops and ran their own schools, didn’t have to settle for welfare or government handouts.
It was a message that resonated with a lot of black folks, particularly many hard-working men and women who still found it difficult to have a decent home, see that their children got a good education, and make sure their neighborhoods were safe. I could see how the message could be appealing. Even so, there was a matter that many were reluctant to discuss with me, and it was — supposedly underling some of their theology — the idea that white people were created by a black scientist named Yacub, who lived 6,600 years ago on the island of Patmos. He created them to be “white devils” through a means of breeding similar to “grafting.” With my Christian background, having grown up in the Baptist Church, that idea was foreign to me, but I forced myself not to treat those who would discuss this with me as if they were naive, loony, or misguided. And I didn’t look at them the way several non- Christians had looked at me when I tried to explain to them that the God of all creation came down to earth to live as a man, was born of a virgin, lived and preached among us, performed miracles, was executed by the authorities to pay for my sins; then rose from the dead and went back into heaven.
Although many of the Muslims I encountered then, would tell me that, one day, I would see the light and would join their ranks, I told them I believed it was more likely it would be the other way around. Even though we differed on key points, they were always respectful, always gracious and always willing to help me understand them, hoping I would present a fair and accurate picture of them. And, because I also respected them and understood the years of racism and oppression that had affected me as well as them, I did my best to present them as accurately as I could. When the articles appeared, I didn’t get a single complaint from members of the Black Muslim community, but, as I recall, there were complaints to the newspaper — as to why we were giving such a group so much coverage and “publicity.”
The Rumble At The Fairgrounds
And then there was “The Real Battle of Atlanta,” as many people jokingly referred to the Jan. 21, 1975 charity boxing match between “The Greatest,” world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, and “The Big M,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson; three rounds at Lakewood Fairgrounds, where five years later, the legendary, wood roller coaster, known as the “Greyhound,” would be demolished in a spectacular explosion for a scene in the Burt Reynolds movie, “Smokey and the Bandit II.” But, on this day, the large crowd was drawn to the scene of a highly publicized festival, or “Family Day Bazaar,” and boxing exhibition to raise money for — and promote — black-owned businesses in the city. The event was a joint-venture between the city and the Muslim community, with Muslim officials taking the lead in the setup and operations. The major attraction, however, was Ali, perhaps the most-recognized Black Muslim in the world and, maybe, the most popular boxer to ever set foot in the ring. There were plenty of vendors on hand to push their wares and make those in the audience aware of the full range of products and services offered by minority businesses in the area.
Once in the ring, the two fighters engaged in trash talk, to the crowd’s delight. Ali had warned Jackson he was “crazy” to get in the ring with him, because “the tricks of the ring are not like politics.” He even charged that the mayor, who easily topped three hundred pounds, was like a balloon, and that he (Ali) was nervous about hitting him too hard, because he “might burst.” He added that Jackson wore his trunks so high — up to his “breasts” — there wasn’t enough room left for him to work on the mayor’s midsection. Jackson’s attire was a bit non-traditional. He wore flowered trunks and a white Atlanta Falcons T-shirt, black shoes, with white athletic socks ringed by double red stripes. Ali wore his traditional white trunks and white shoes. While Ali had come in wearing a white robe, Jackson wore a red one, with the moniker, “The Big M” on the back in bold letters.
Jackson, however, was no slouch in the trash-talking department. “If you even dream about hitting me,” he had told the champ, “you’d better wake up and apologize.”
In the center of the ring, the two fighters were greeted by another heavyweight — civil rights leader and Ga. State Rep. Julian Bond, who served as the referee. He, himself, had something in common with Ali. He had suffered a decade earlier, too, because of his opposition to the Viet Nam War and his support of those against the draft. Because of those stands, the Georgia Legislature had refused to seat him, in 1966, as a duly elected member of that body. However, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling forced the Georgia House of Representatives to seat him in 1967. He had also been one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He was the organization’s communications director.
Now, since the death of Ali, I have been thinking about those three giants of not just African-American rights, but human rights. They were in the forefront, when stepping up and being bold in the cause of equality and justice was likely to bring pain and suffering, censure, economic and/or career sanctions. The reality of that, for Maynard Jackson, was seen years later, after he had served three terms as the city’s mayor. When he “retired” as mayor, there wasn’t a single big, white, law firm in the city that would offer him a position, even though he had practiced law before seeking public office. He ended up taking a position with a firm in Chicago.
Back in that ring that day in January of 1975, stood three men, who, though they often fought in different arenas, were fighters in the same global battle for justice. They each took their blows and kept climbing back into the ring. Now, as I reflect on those times and how those three were greater than we realized at the time, the sad thought hits me that all three are now gone; they’ve moved on to other arenas. Jackson died in 2003, Bond, in 2015, and Ali, in 2016. The memory of the three men in that ring made me think of a haunting poem by Amiri Baraka: “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” Particularly the lines that suggest to me great lost and sorrow:
“And now, each night I count the stars,
“And each night I get the same number.
“And when they will not come to be counted,
“I count the holes they leave …”
For me, the holes are there. Stars we shall not see again.
But on that day in 1975, they were there in all their madcap glory, Bond fighting hard to keep a straight face as he watched the antics of the two fighters, close up; the brief shuffles, faints and lunges, exaggerated wind-ups and occasional landed punches. In the end, there was world heavyweight boxing champ, Ali, sprawled on his back on the canvas with Jackson and Bond over him. The Big M had taken him in the third round. It was fake, it was fun, but it was still somehow profound, significant that such an event would take place at all. It was a show of generosity of spirit, of gratitude that underscored a relationship between a man and a city. Underneath the hilarity of the moment — if you watched closely enough — there was something special, something difficult to describe, but wonderful and inspirational. Sometimes, even the silliest things — if you are tuned to the right frequency — can be surprisingly profound.
“The Centennial Games”
The scene moves two decades forward in time, to what is, without a doubt, the crowning moment of a relationship that would last nearly five decades.
Friday, July 19, 1996, the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. The world’s eyes are on Atlanta. Reportedly, more than 3 billion people watched at least a portion of the Games on television — and viewership was especially high as the “tribes of the world,” representing 197 nations, gathered in Olympic Stadium for the ceremonies that would launch the Centennial Games. There were welcome speeches, singing, dazzling musical and choreographed performances, the usual spectacles, but the pivotal cause for anticipation — which had been the reason for weeks of nerve-wracking anxiety — was the question of who, which golden athlete, would light the cauldron that would officially signal the start of the games .
The identity of the chosen one had been such a closely guarded secret that it might have been easier to snatch the code to this nation’s nuclear missile launch system, than uncover the name of the one who would do the honors on, perhaps, the largest stage in the world. Speculation was rampant. Atlanta Olympian, and former heavyweight boxing champion, Evander Holyfield, had said he thought he would get the nod, but was told, no, that he would be allowed to help bring the torch into the arena. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall so much intrigue over who would light the cauldron at the Los Angles Games in 1984, which had been the last time the Olympics had been on U.S. soil. I remembered Rafer Johnson running up a seemingly endless stairway to get to the cauldron. But we knew ahead of time he would do it. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, or ACOG, an acronym that had been meshed into my brain, and the brains of everybody else at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, during the long run-up to the actual opening night, had decided to generate extra interest in the Games by withholding the identity of the cauldron lighter.
And the world was on pins and needles that momentous Friday night. After Olympic medalist, Al Oerter, brought the lighted torch to the stadium, he handed it off to Evander Holyfield, who was joined by Voula Patoulidou, and they passed it to swimmer Janet Evans, who ran a lap around the track, then up the long ramp toward the end of the stadium and the stage where the cauldron would be lit. Many in the crowd assumed that Evans was the chosen one, that she would finish the task. But, as she got onto the stage, out of the shadows, came a tall figure dressed in white, walking with an unsteady gait, carrying a unlit torch in his right hand, as his left danced up and down to rhythms of his advanced-stage Parkinson’s disease. The crowd in the stadium, suddenly recognized the gold medalist from the 1960 Rome Olympics, and the three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali. There were loud gasps, then applause. The grace of movement he had displayed so effortlessly in his youth, was gone. He moved slowly, deliberately toward Evans, who touched her torch to his. The tension was so thick by now, because the world knew Ali’s condition. Parkinson’s had made it difficult for him to walk, but also a real strain for him to talk. Getting his torch lit seemed to take forever. If they couldn’t get it lit, what would they do? We all — the whole world — were on the edges of our seats whether we were right there in the arena or glued to the TV at home. We were aching for him to pull this off. “Take your time; it’s OK,” we were whispering. “You can do it, champ.” But could he? We weren’t sure. But we knew Ali always rose to the occasion whenever he was on a big stage. And he had been on many. But this was, perhaps, the biggest stage of his life. A life that had meant so much to so many; had brought joy to millions, sick children who laughed at his magic tricks. Others fortunate enough to shadow box with him when meeting him for the first time at a publicity event or restaurant. He was always so generous with his time. He loved being around people, especially children. He loved giving back.
Once his torch was lit, a huge sigh of relief was released by the audience. But only a brief one, because we knew he had to negotiate a few more steps across the stage to the cauldron to light the apparatus that would produce the Olympic flame. What we didn’t know at the time, was Ali had been brought in by ACOG, days earlier, on a private plane that landed, not at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, but at a general aviation field, where he was covered with a blanket as he came down the plane’s steps, hustled into a waiting, blacked-out limousine, and hurried into downtown. During several practices that week, the champ had dropped the torch, and seemed to have had great difficulty completing the task. According to Billy Payne, the CEO of ACOG, he didn’t know whether Ali was having as much difficulty as he appeared to be having, or “whether he was playing with us,” given that Ali was such a showman, and was, indeed, often playful. Payne told the AJC’s Steve Hummer that a plan was hatched to save the day, if Ali faltered. Janet Evans would pick up the torch, if Ali dropped it, and move to the special apparatus and light it, and would be counted on to do it as gracefully as possible.
But, back in that moment, we were all still holding our breaths. “Is he going to set fire to himself? A tragedy on the opening night? Look at that left arm — moving to beat the band.” Yet his eyes, so focused! Locked in on the target, not paying any attention to the left hand and arm that were shaking like a conductor battling the “Will Tell Overture.”
Finally, he was there, leaning forward, trying to light the thing, which — of course — at first, didn’t light. He was patient. Tried again. What could we see in his face? Was he frustrated, downcast? While he was holding the torch to the apparatus, if looked as if the flame from his torch was licking its way up his forearm. Can I watch this? I thought. But the champ was patient, and — succeeded. The flame rushed up to the cauldron and the Centennial Games could begin! There was joy in The Big Peach, and throughout the whole world! The roar of the crowd in the stadium was deafening. Such joy! Such relief! He did it! He did it! I was exhausted from the drama, the tension, but Muhammad Ali, a true Olympian, a showman of the highest order, and a beloved man of the people had come through again.
Later, I wondered if, after that moment, he thought back to that day nearly 20 years earlier when he stepped into the ring in Atlanta’s old Municipal Auditorium, with a packed house watching history in the making. He was coming back from a government-imposed layoff of more than three years. He had been stripped of his heavyweight crown; he was a deposed king, a persona non grata in much of the country that he loved; derisively labeled a draft-dodger, and uppity nigger, and perhaps even anti-Christian. But that was the start of one of the most incredible comebacks in sports history. Atlanta — after nearly 50 other cities had turned him down, including the big boxing centers of Las Vegas and New York — granted him a license to box again. And he defeated game heavyweight Jerry Quarry via technical knockout.. Atlanta had put him back in the hunt; he went on to win the heavyweight championship two more times, winning some of the most fabled matches in boxing history. And he had helped put Atlanta on the map, as a sports town, as a city whose African-American leaders could produce results when others couldn’t. It was a jump-start that led to the city hosting college basketball final fours, NFL super bowls, major conventions and hundreds of other big-time gatherings, and finally, The Olympic Games.
For The Greatest and The Big Peach, it had been an incredible run that changed the trajectories and fortunes of both. That boxing match, in what would now be considered a tiny venue, was a game-changer for Atlanta and set the stage for growth, prosperity and stature for a city once known primarily as one of the towns that made up the “heart of the Confederacy.” It is difficult to explain, but while modern Atlanta has often been described as “a black city,” it is not that. It is a diverse city, even though black residents currently hold a now-shrinking majority voting status. But that is changing as more young white professionals and families move to the city, as reverse migration and gentrification move forward, full speed, and so-called “Millenmials” spread their wings and their influence. Although the city’s last five mayors have been black, there will eventually be another white mayor, supported by coalitions of black and white residents, newcomers and oldsters. And, I believe, the city will continue to grow, to navigate the bumps in the road. The foundation for moving forward was set long ago by a series of events and seismic moments, not the least of which was Ali-Quarry, October 26, 1970.
Dick Ebersol, the former head of NBC Sports, has been quoted in several publications, saying that he first suggested Ali to light the cauldron in 1996, and, initially, met strong opposition from ACOG. At the time, Evander Holyfield, an Olympian from the 1984 games, was Payne’s choice. As CEO of the effort, the call was Payne’s.
He told the AJC’s Steve Hummer that when he was a much younger man, he was “conflicted about how could anybody I love as much as I loved Muhammad Ali not want to go fight for his country. I was not mentally mature enough to be able to deal with whether the war itself [Viet Nam] was justified or unjustified. I was like, if my country says go charge the wall, I’m going to charge.
“As I grew older, I began to appreciate other people’s point of view and realized,” he said, “that my point of view was not the only one that mattered.” He told Hummer that Ebersol lobbied hard for Ali. “Through time,” he said, “it became clear that [Ali] representing the Olympic movement, specifically introducing the Centennial Games, would be an amazing, illuminating event.” And boy, was it ever!
That opening night of towering achievement and wonder in ’96 put an exclamation mark on the win-win relationship between the city and the champ. But the relationship did not end there. It continued until Ali died. Maria Saporta, a former colleague of mine at the AJC, pointed out in the SAPORTA REPORT, her online publication, that Ali was here for the 2000 Super Bowl in the Georgia Dome as the guest of honor of Jeff Arnold, founder of WebMD.
“Arnold,” Saporta wrote, “saw the 2000 Super Bowl as a great opportunity to build the visibility of his online healthcare website. WebMD used the occasion to announce a partnership with Muhammad Ali and Lance Armstrong — two of the most famous athletes in the world, who were battling illnesses. Ali had Parkinson’s, and Armstrong had cancer. Both agreed to be faces for WebMD — to show how people could get greater control over their own health.”
Saporta said she was invited to visit the suites where Ali and Armstrong would be seated, and told to make sure she went to the suite with Ali in the first quarter, “because that would be when Ali’s WebMD commercial would be making its debut — and that way, I would be able to see his reaction. Arnold said the commercial would be unique because it would be the first time in nearly twenty years that Ali would be filmed boxing for exercise. For him, he wanted to be seen as an athlete rather than as a victim of Parkinson’s.”
She said that as the commercial ran, Ali’s eyes were “transfixed” on the TV screen. When she asked him what he thought about the film featuring him, he had a one-word response: “Beautiful.”
Saporta said the other important relationship the champ had with the city was not well known. “The doctor who treated him for Parkinson’s was Atlanta’s own — Dr. Mahlon DeLong, the William Timmie Professor of Neurology at Emory University — one of the national leaders in the treatment of Parkinson’s,” she said. “Delong had been treating Ali since 1994 — three years after he had come to Emory from Johns Hopkins University.”
On April 8, 2010, when Dr. Delong was an honoree at the Foundation of Wesley Woods’ Heroes, Saints & Legends dinner at the St. Regis Hotel, according to Saporta, “his award was overshadowed by two guests who had come to honor him — Yolanda ‘Lonnie’ Ali and Muhammad Ali, who arrived in a wheelchair. It was Lonnie who spoke on their behalf.
“I remember walking in his office,” Lonnie Ali said of her first time meeting DeLong. “[Muhammad Ali] was doing really well then. [DeLong] was going through the different assessments. I told him, ‘He will be your most difficult patient. ‘ I think Muhammad has lived up to that.'”
The champ and his wife made another trip to the city on March 15, 2014, to the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, Saporta said, when the Foundation of Wesley Woods honored Lonnie Ali for the way she had managed her husband’s business affairs and had been such a dedicated personal caregiver.
That was less than two years before Ali, the man of the world, and certainly a man for all seasons, died. The world will miss him. It is a better place, I believe, because he graced it. He certainly wasn’t a perfect man, as Thomas Houser, his biographer, wrote in a column for ESPN when it was clear Ali was near death. “Ali was far from perfect, and it would do him a disservice not to acknowledge his flaws,” Houser wrote. “It’s hard to imagine a person so powerful, yet so naive. On occasion, Ali acted irrationally. He cherished honor and was an honorable person, but he too often excused dishonorable behavior in others. His accommodation of dictators such as Mobutu Seko and Ferdinand Marcos and his willingness to fight in their countries stood in stark contrast to his love of freedom.
“There is nothing redeeming in one black person calling another black person a ‘gorilla,’ which was the label Ali affixed to Joe Frazier. Nor should one gloss over Ali’s belief in racial separatism and the profligate womanizing of his younger days. But the things that Ali did right in life far outweigh his mistakes,” Houser said. “And the rough edges of his earlier years have long been forgiven.
“What remains is a legacy of monumental proportions and a reminder of what people can be. Muhammad Ali’s influence on an entire nation, black and white, and on a whole world of nations, was incalculable. He wasn’t just a champion. A champion is someone who wins an athletic competition. Ali went beyond that … Ali carved out a place in history that was uniquely his own … Muhammad Ali was an international treasure. More than anyone else of his generation, he belonged to the people of the world and was loved by them,” Houser added. “He made us better.”
None of us is perfect. Not even those we consider to be great men and women. We are flawed, each of us in his or her own ways. But in these days since Ali died, there has been a special star missing from the sky over Atlanta. I have seen the hole it left. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
Chet Fuller is a former newspaper editor. This article is from the forthcoming book: “Muhammad Ali In Atlanta.”