Muhammad Ali Found Himself in Chicago: South Shore, Storms, and Saints

Muhammad Ali overlooking the Chicago River and the city's skyline, 1966. Thomas Hoepker /

There is something significant about choosing where the ground you walk on every day will be. In the midst of a stormy and turbulent world, deciding where you will dwell – where the home in which you will try to raise your children to be upright, proud and righteous – is no small decision. For some, that choice is centered around rising property values, good schools, and “safe” neighborhoods. But when you’ve been struck down, when you’re in the midst of your life’s deepest trials, and when the impending decisions of larger, uncontrollable forces loom over you, you come to seek something different out of a home.

Instead of guiding your search based on what others tell you makes a good home, you seek a safe haven of another sort. You learn to make your own decisions. You seek protection, a place where your family will be left alone in the midst of whispers and unfounded rumors, where inquisitors dare not follow, where your children can play outside unperturbed, where you might find yourself strengthened, even whole again. A few years ago, that search for a different meaning for home was mine. In the midst of very public revelations involving my ex-husband’s impending federal prison sentence, humiliating domestic abuse, and a marriage ending in much the way a violent meteor shower strikes, I needed another place to call home.

I flirted with different possibilities while trying to understand what it was that my children and I needed most from a home. Should we live near the university campus I worked at in the protective bubble of the college-town neighborhood we knew so well? That place was where home used to be though and it was marked. It didn’t provide us the freedom of searching for something different, something better and good. Did we want to leave the city and hide out in the suburbs between rows of nondescript houses? The Chicago suburbs and the great aspirations for vanilla-flavored normalcy they contain, let alone the grinding daily commute they promised, wasn’t for us either. Did I want to go back home to my Ohio hometown, where my parents still lived? Did I want to pack it all in, go home, and stay safe as I cried myself to sleep every night in my childhood bedroom with the powder blue paint and pink floral wallpaper? No. Giving up wasn’t what I wanted either.

There had to be somewhere else we could call home. There had to be a place where our pride in our identities, in who I knew we were, and this righteousness I held onto – needed to hold onto – would be nurtured and protected. There had to be a place where the ground was holy, sacred, even magical from others who had done what we aspired to, the hard work of surviving, of giving and receiving love, of getting back in the ring on our own terms. There had to be a place from where I could pave my own way as a woman – a place where I could stand up and rise and watch my children rise. I wanted to find a home where I would be reminded daily of the kind of dazzling beauty that diligently works its way out of abandoned, neglected cracks.

In the midst of this search for what would eventually become a new life, I remembered a moment from years ago in our former home. We had just moved in. Boxes littered the floor. My father was visiting and we needed to eat. I ordered a pizza. My father answered the door when the pizza delivery man rang. As my he signed the bill, the delivery man stopped and excitedly said, “Muhammad Iqbal…Asalamu alaikum, my brother! You Muslim?” My father, overjoyed in the way only an immigrant to this country would be upon finding someone who saw familiarity in him, buoyantly responded, “Walikum asalam. Alhumdulillah, yes.” They embraced, joyfully, as though they were brothers hugging on Eid morning and not just strangers who were exchanging a pizza delivery receipt.

As my father and the man continued to talk and tell each other about who they were, the man told us that in the 1960s he had been a bodyguard for the G.O.A.T., Muhammad Ali. He told us stories about how he used to go everywhere with him. He had even seen Malcom’s face, talked to him. He pulled a picture out of his wallet, showed us a worn out picture of The Champ and him, standing closely next to each other. The two men looked serious, beautiful, and strong. Tears came to his eyes as he said, “They don’t make them like that anymore.”

My father told him about the times he listened to Muhammad Ali’s fights over a radio in Pakistan as a boy and what Muhammad Ali meant to people in lands far away. The delivery man wistfully responded, “We all loved him, didn’t we?” As he looked at our moving boxes, he told us that when Muhammad Ali was looking for a place to live, for a place to find home in ’64, he moved to a predominantly black neighborhood called South Shore, 19 blocks south from where we stood. Later when Ali would leave Chicago, Ali would buy a magnificent mansion mere blocks from where he stood in a different neighborhood. That’s where most people came to visit when they wanted to honor Ali. But he told us that Muhammad Ali didn’t really live there. When he lived in Chicago, home was the South Shore community, close to the Nation of Islam’s Chicago headquarters. That was where he would be seen taking walks, seeking solace in the midst of the madness his life had become, where he retreated, where he got back up every single morning, where he became truly great.

What the pizza delivery man said to us that day stayed on mind. Years later during my own search for a new place to call home in the midst of my life’s various storms, I too, like Muhammad Ali, would find myself starting over again, seeking refuge in the South Shore neighborhood that would become my home. With all that was on my mind at the time though, the story about Muhammad Ali retreating to this same place, less than two blocks from where I now live, was on my mind, but it was peripheral.

Yesterday, last night and right at the cusp of the Ramadan moon, Muhammad Ali passed on to the next world. Reading tribute after tribute about a man who was known for so many things to so many people, I came across an article in the Chicago Tribune, Muhammad Ali’s exile years in Chicago: ‘Learning about life’. The article confirmed what I had heard from neighbors during the kind of lazy conversations that only happen when you both take your garbage out at the same time and start talking.

Shortly after announcing his conversion to Islam in 1964, Ali moved to Chicago and stayed here for more than a decade. Based on first-hand hand accounts, the Tribune piece describes Ali’s early years here as ones in which he “tried to blend in. He strolled alone underneath the “L” tracks, casually dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. He hung out with friends at the automobile garage at 69th Street and Stony Island Boulevard,” as he contemplated his decisions, who he was, and what was to become.

As I read the article, it struck me that 69th Street and Stony is my intersection too. This is where I mark in my mind that I have arrived home when I’m driving in my car. This neighborhood is where I have found comfort in who I am, where I come from, and hope in what my children will God-willing become someday. Tears flowed down my face, as it struck me that there is something special about this ground we have been guided towards, where blessings abound. It is here that lies the imprint of Muhammad Ali’s transformation, a black man who would transform from Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali as the entire world watched. His well-paved path literally lay steps before those of us lucky enough to also call this place home.

Here is where Muhammad Ali continued to say no to the forces that tried to convince him that greatness lay elsewhere, on a different, less righteous path. Here is where he would live and walk freely as he awaited the appeal of his draft evasion conviction as it made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A jail sentence looming over him, Ali kept turning his head towards Mecca and the North Star he found in this community. Here he gave up glory and the real potential to make millions of dollars. Here he faced the potentially grave consequences of the decisions he made.

It was also here, in 1971, while Ali was at a corner grocery store on 79th Street when he heard that the Supreme Court had overturned his conviction – that he would be free, that he was vindicated. It was in this community that he lived with his deep flaws and embarked upon finding love again, with his second marriage. Here, he walked the same rocks and witnessed the same glorious great lake scenes my children are awed by every day. Here is where he carried and walked with his memories of meeting Malcom and other greats in American Muslim history. It was here he talked directly to God. It was here he kneeled on the ground and prayed to be redeemed by the Greatest. It was here his life became a sign for people far beyond this neighborhood, far beyond this city, far beyond this country. He was walking these streets – the ones my children reside in today – while my maternal grandfather in Pakistan was reading about him and my great-grandmother was praying for him. Here is where he is forever imprinted upon the collective memory of America – a black Muslim man becoming undeniably who he was.

The ground we walk through and live in matters. It witnesses legacies; it carries great tragedy and great hopes. In some places, the air is full of dangerous storms above and around. Violence rages, blood spills, discrimination and injustice tear families and entire cities apart. In some places a tale of two cities is not merely a tale. Yet, in these places of turmoil and uncertainty, saints walk among the storms. The earth and concrete men and women continue to tread on is hallowed, magical, even blessed. In these places where violent tempests brew, men and women survive on their own terms, inspired by the ones who walked before them. In these places, men and women find God and themselves. Here, the stories of saints, great men, and great women inspire the rest of the world too.

And, like it was for a significant time in Muhammad Ali’s blessed and great life, here is home for us too. In that, there are signs for those who are looking.

 


Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member.

1 Comment

  • rehmat1 says:

    Ali started boxing when he was 12, winning Golden Gloves titles before heading to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight. On his return, he announced that had joined Nation of Islam, which is considered heretic by many Islamic scholars based on its belief that like Jesus, God also appeared in the person of NOI founder WD Fard. That’s the beginning of Ali’s problems with the Organized Jewry. After the death of sect’s leader Elijah Muhammad, Muhammad Ali like Malcolm X left Nation of Islam and joined mainstream Islam.

    In 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted to serve in the US Army. He’d said previously that the war did not comport with his new faith, and that he had “no quarrel” with America’s enemy, the Vietcong. He refused to serve. As result, Ali was stripped-off all awards, vilified by the Jewish-controlled media and dragged into courts as “draft-dodger”, and sentenced to jail for five years.

    In 2005, Dubya Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for which Bush was criticized by Abraham Foxman, then head of Jewish lobby group ADL, and America’s notorious Muslim-hater Dr. Daniel Pipes.

    Divorced three times and the father of nine children — one of whom, Laila, become a boxer. Ali married his last wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, in 1986; they lived for a long time in Berrien Springs, Michigan, then moved to Arizona.

    Muhammad Ali has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to over two dozen charities and foundations including UNICEF, Athletes For Hope, Beat Bullying, Michael J. Fox Foundation, and Muhammad Ali Center.

    Muhammad Ali’s last public appearance was at the 22nd Anniversary of Celebrity Fight Night on April 9, 2016 (here).

    Professor Francis A. Boyle’s (University of Illinois) tribute to the ‘Champ’:

    Hitching back to UC north on Stoney Island
    Through the Black Belt
    Not very smart
    But I was young, felt invulnerable, and had street smarts
    A well off Black Businessman picks me up in a Lincoln
    A White Boy like you should not be hitch-hiking through this Black neighborhood
    Of course he was right
    Maybe that’s why he picked me up
    To look out for me
    A Black Angel?
    Said nothing in response, just smiled
    Said he was a business manager for Muhammad Ali

    LOL I said to myself, but just smiled and said nothing

    You see that Black Fleetwood up there coming south
    That’s Ali

    Up pulled a Black Cadillac Limo as big as a boat
    Driving it was Muhammad Ali
    Champion of the World
    And hell no I won’t go
    A great fighter, and a great man
    Simply the Greatest
    He was driving with the right hand, left on the side of the car
    Wearing white shirt

    Young, Black, beautiful, charismatic, dynamic

    I was stunned, mouth agape

    All traffic stopped on Stoney, now King
    As the two of them shot the breeze
    No one cared, it was Ali
    Then he continued south
    My driver told the truth
    Shall never forget that day
    When a White kid
    Hitching through the Black Belt
    Met Muhammad Ali
    It was simply the Greatest
    And he was and shall always be the Greatest.
    Hell no, I wont go!
    We all knew Ali was a great fighter
    That made him a great man
    The Greatest.

    https://rehmat1.com/2016/06/04/the-champ-meets-his-allah/

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