Around 1994 the epicenter of Black politico was Atlanta City Hall where legions of obnoxious incompetent people literally stole money by working inefficiently and collecting big paychecks often basking in the arrogance of their own ignorance.
I was the sports editor of the Atlanta Daily World at the time and one day that spring my boss – the late Portia Scott – threw me a curve on a casual Friday.
“Muhammad Ali is going to be at City Hall this afternoon,” she said. “I need you to go over there to see what’s up”.
“Really,” I’m thinking I’ve got the chance to meet one of my childhood heroes but I’ve got to go into the belly of the beast to do it. This won’t be easy because I’m not dressed for city hall since its casual Friday.
Casual Friday meant that the blazer, tie, and slacks were not an option. Sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers were the look and the plan was to see the barber after work for the weekend trim. Grossly under-dressed I made the half mile walk up Auburn Ave. past Underground Atlanta to City Hall. Each step seemed to take forever entering the building and the spiral staircase leading up to mayor’s office was a never-ending journey.
To say the condescending group of Black people who gathered were unwelcoming is the greatest understatement of my career. The minions who were obviously taking an extended lunch – behaving like groupies lurking outside a locker room trying to become either the next R.H.O.A or proprietor of a local gentlemen’s club – looked me up and down as though I was a Black reporter in a Major League Baseball press box. The people snickered after staring me up and down trying to figure who was this guy that was poised to crash their exclusive party.
I set up shop on the other side of the room while they stood in the doorway trying to get the first word with the champ. Patience was tested as we all waited for more than an hour for his arrival which seemed like an eternity in a day where there was no social media to pass time via cellphone and nobody to talk with.
When Ali finally arrives the masses converge on him. He looks across the room and we make eye contact as then Mayor Maynard Jackson – the soul of modern Atlanta – embraces him with the kind of bear hug that only historic Black men share. After their moment Ali starts making his way across the room.
It was surreal. Nobody is on my side of the room and this epoch figure starts moving towards me. I’m just a young, humble, inexperienced reporter who had been ostracized by citizens of a city that claimed it was “too busy to hate” since I’m working for a Black Republican newspaper. I’m not famous or a relevant figure but still Ali makes his way toward me prompting me to think “what’s up with that”?
Parkinson’s had begun taking affect. He moved slow and his speech was beginning to slur noticeably but still his presence was captivating. There was warmth about his personality that eased my tension with every step he took in my direction. The closer he came to me the more I was drawn to him. It was the only time I was in awe of someone I was supposed to interview.
“What’s your name,” Ali asks in a raspy, crackling voice.
“Mark Gray,” I said with my voice trembling and humbled by the spirit of a man who could sense my uneasiness having spent more than an hour in such a toxic environment. He shadow boxed, told jokes, and shared a few magic tricks with me prompting dirty looks from the masses that were priceless. For 10 minutes in my life I was “clowning” with Muhammad Ali like we had been boys for years. That day made me realize the impact you can have on a person’s life or change the course of history by making the commitment to be special.
There are those who are blessed to sense what the world needs at a given moment and Muhammad Ali was that. He opposed the Vietnam War in the late 60’s and brokered the release of hostages from Iraq in 1990.
Ali also let the world know after the horrific attacks of 911 that Islam was a religion of peace and the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center didn’t represent his faith either.
In his own way Ali eased tensions of the world with a calmness that resonated with everyone from political leaders to an insignificant Black newspaper reporter in Atlanta City Hall dressed for casual Friday.
RIP Champ. You’re still the greatest.