Muhammad Ali: “Who’s he?” asked the Harlem schoolkids

(AP photo above of Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston)
Muhammad Ali was a hero of mine, even though I grew up in a white Philadelphia neighbourhood bordering on a black one where you were called a “n….er lover,” if you sympathised with African Americans. Racism was rife in Philly.
My crime was teaching in Harlem, the famous black community in New York City. I taught there because it was a way of avoiding the draft in the late 1960s, by teaching in a disadvantaged area. I decided I’d much rather teach black kids in Harlem, than kill Vietnamese kids in Vietnam. During my time there, a friend, a Vietnam veteran, came to watch me teach and observe the school. His comment was: “At least they gave us a gun.”
Regular readers of gonzomeetsthepress.com will have heard all my Harlem stories, except for one involving Muhammad Ali. In 1969 I was given a home room class of 12 sixth grade boys at IS88 (a junior high school then) at 114th St and Seventh Avenue. I was young and enthusiastic and the idea was to get close to the pupils, to curb the recalcitrant and encourage the keen. Yes, a few had behavioural problems, so I did my best to get them involved in their studies.
Well, I’ve always been a sports aficionado, having played and coached basketball, baseball and American football on a high school level, and taught how to box by my father, who was a US Navy World War II veteran, and unofficial light-heavyweight champion of the ships competition in the South Pacific. I can’t confirm that as my father never talked about the war, but my brother Jack, who’s no longer with us, told me that, so I’d like to think it’s true. (I’ve written to the Naval Archives for information on my Dad’s service record. I should hear soon.)
Anyway, my Dad was a boxing fan. In the 50s he was a regular watcher of the Gillette Friday Night Fights and used to invite friends and neighbours over for a beer and a chat. But they were not allowed to talk during the actual fight, only between rounds. If they talked, they were never invited back. Like most Dads in the neighbourhood, he was not a civil rights activist. That’s an understatement. He loved Rocky Marciano, the undefeated world heavyweight champion, but as time went by, the white boxers declined in number and African American fighters grew. He stopped watching the fights, but occasionally when a really big bout took place, he would turn on the TV, even if it involved two black Americans. His favourite line was: “I’ll bet you the black guy wins.” He used another word. So I never really found out if my Dad thought Muhammad Ali was a better boxer than Rocky Marciano. I’d like to think in his mellowing years, he would have had nice things to say about Muhammad Ali, although he’d probably call him Cassius Clay.
But I digress. This is not a biography of my father, although the more I think about it, I should write one. Jack Krause was one hell of a bloke. But so was Muhammad Ali. Going back to my teaching days in Harlem, I decided to give my class a lesson on boxing and Muhammad Ali as part of my campaign to get their interest. We had been doing profiles of famous American sportsmen, and there was an article in the New York Times about Muhammad Ali and how he was stripped of his heavyweight championship, had his boxing license revoked, after he was found guilty of draft evasion, was fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. He had refused to be inducted for religious reasons – he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964 – and even more famously, told authorities why he didn’t want to go to Vietnam: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. … No Viet Cong ever called me n—-r.” Thankfully, he was free on bail to tour US campuses and plead his case on Vietnam. Eventually, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction by 8-0 in June, 1971. But he lost four years of his boxing career in his prime, aged 25 to 29.
But my teaching lesson was in 1969, and I asked the boys what they thought of Muhammad Ali. “Who’s he, Mr Krause?” asked Herman in the front row. “Yeah, who’s that?” echoed Howard sitting next to him. Not one of the African American pupils in Harlem had ever heard of Muhammad Ali, a former heavyweight champion of the world, one of the most famous boxers in the history of the sport. I was flabbergasted.
By the end of the class, they knew who he was. I told them how I had evaded the draft legally by teaching in a school in Harlem – a disadvantaged area where it was hard to attract good teachers. So in a way I was a draft evader. I don’t think I was a very good teacher then, I was still learning, but they responded to my enthusiasm, Muhammad Ali’s success and subsequent raw deal. It was my second year in Harlem, and I was already being called a “n—er lover” by the regulars in the pub across from my parents’ place in West Philadelphia. I was proud to be called that, but I hated the word – still do, of course. I loved those kids, but it wasn’t an easy gig. That’s another understatement.
Muhammad Ali was an Olympic gold medallist, the heavyweight champion of the world, a civil rights activist, and as Kevin Mitchell, the boxing correspondent for the Guardian and Observer, puts it in his wonderful obituary of Muhammad, he was not only a fighter, but a joker, magician, religious disciple and preacher. If you only have time to read one Muhammad Ali obit, this is it.
I’d love to hear what those sixth graders are saying about him 47 years later. There was only one Muhammad Ali, and I’d like to give the last word to Kevin Mitchell from his last paragraph. “Whoever Ali was, there was only one of him. Categorically, there will not be another. I doubt we could stand the excitement.”

8 thoughts on “Muhammad Ali: “Who’s he?” asked the Harlem schoolkids

  1. How wonderous and many were the works of Ali – and the memories his passing invokes of lost times, family, friends and just growing up. Was he more than human? I’ll leave that to the philosophers and theologists to work out.

  2. Lovely reflection Tom. In so many ways Ali towers over modern day professional athletes. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Your dad sounds like my dad! Except we would watch rugby and basketball together.
    Did your father meet any Aussies in World War 2? Did he spend any time in Oz? What a great story you’d have!
    Oh, and the Ali piece is fantastic. Harlem back then? Wow!

  4. Thanks for your kind words, Craig. My father never talked much about the war. My uncle was in Brisbane and talked about it, saying how much fun he had on R & R. I must have a chat with my cousin, his son. You’re right about it being a great story. And I’ll never forget Harlem. I have told quite a few stories about my teaching days there on my blog. Cheers, Tom

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