The Day I Met Muhammad Ali

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During this time of recovery from illness I’ve had time to reflect on what has made me ‘me’. There are certain days that I can recall which changed the course of my life and my perspectives. This was one of them. I still believe that practical action and courtesy are the key things in resolving conflict, no matter how impossible that seems at times.

I was living in Evanston, Illinois at the time in a mixed black/white neighbourhood which wasn’t a problem until the riots broke out in Chicago in 1968. For me it was a very fearful time.  I was homesick for California and the lifestyle I had adopted after my family’s emigration from Scotland. Through a friend I discovered a wonderful Congregational church on the Near North Side in Chicago. Through regular attendance there I not only met a new group of like-minded friends but strengthened my Christian faith in a very 20th century way. I sang in a folk group at morning workshop. I also served as chairman of the “Arts in Worship” group who were responsible for organizing workshops to create banners to hang in the church to highlight each phase of the church year.

In the Spring of 1968 I began to attend a class on 20th century theology, intending to study the works of writers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hung by the Nazis for participating in a plot to kill Hitler. We also planned to read other modern thinkers in the church such as Paul Tillich and Søren Kirkegaard and discuss our reading.

We had been meeting for a few weeks when the riots broke out in Chicago following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

As a group we decided unanimously that we had to change track. We could no longer study any kind of theories when the surrounding community was being on fire and racial conflict was active in the streets only a few miles away.

We agreed on a practical course of action. We would visit churches in the neighbourhoods recovering from the effects of the riots and talk to people who knew much more about living in turmoil and in the aftermath of racial unrest.

At first we were unsure and fearful of our welcome as white people, but in each church where we attended a worship service, we received a cordial welcome and learned much from discussions after the service. We found that the members of the church community were as concerned as we were about understanding each other’s point of view and finding a peaceful way forward.

Economic issues of poverty and prosperity were as important as racial issues in many neighbourhoods in the south of the city, with activists believing that both problems had to be faced in a way that would address poverty and inequality and move forward from chaos and rioting.

One group that addressed both these issues in a practical way were the Black Muslims. They set up enterprises like the restaurant SALAAM which was housed in an old bank building and served amazing soul food. They set up a related training programme for ex-prisoners to learn new job skills in order for them to have employment when they were released.

As a group we read and discussed books like the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” to learn more about the movement and its goals. We decided that one thing we could do was to book a table at the restaurant and share a meal. We weren’t sure how a group of white customers would be received, but after all, the restaurant was a business and we would spread the word. We were received graciously and served fantastic soul food. The waiters were curious as to where we were from and why we were there. Not long after we started our meal, Muhammad Ali walked into the restaurant and headed right for our table with the same questions. He listened courteously as we told him why we were there and told us more of the background of the Black Muslims and we listened courteously while he told us how Muslim women should dress and behave.

One of our members asked the question we had all wanted to ask – Why as a devout believer did he regularly say in public ‘I am the Greatest’ with no apparent humility?

The answer? “Every time I say ‘I am the Greatest out loud I sell another $1000 ringside seat for  Black Muslim funds.”

He left us shortly after with a standing invitation to visit the restaurant again anytime. We did.

Fast forward to last week when my son who lives in Philadelphia told me that he had been to a meeting and exhibition to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, an event which had caused me much concern and fear decades ago. There was an interracial balance in the people attending a glimmer of hope that we might get it right sometime.

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