What Muhammad Ali meant in my childhood. Notes on a terrible week.


The Greatest. It was and is a simple claim. And, in this one case, it was true.

When death came to Muhammad Ali early last Saturday morning it hit like hitting a wall. It was, for me, an end. Not just an end to an amazing life, but childhood’s end.

I grew up with Ali as the one that was always there.

Before my real consciousness of the planet the first two great heroes in our house were dead. My parents wept for the loss of Pope John XXIII in the summer of 1963, the loss of a world leader who was transforming the globe, and just five months later, we sat in the flickering glow of black and white TV and saw the inexplicable loss of John Kennedy — a president my parents had invested so much faith in — a president like them, in generation and that World War experience.

But then there was Muhammad Ali.

My father tended toward different kinds of sports heroes. There was Willy Mays, of course, and — despite absolute loyalty to the New York Rangers — the way the Montreal Canadiens played hockey, but my dad seemed drawn more to the interesting back story than to just what appeared on TV. Maybe not just interesting, I think he was drawn to struggle. And he liked Cassius Clay, the young boxer I guess he discovered during the Rome Olympics.

I remember my father’s long and passionate defense of Clay’s right to be called whatever he wanted to be called. I doubt that anyone is our house, in our side of town, had any real idea of what a Muslim was, or a ‘Black Muslim’ certainly, but it didn’t matter. “A man doesn’t need your permission to change his name,” my dad told our neighbors. It was February 1964, less than 3 months since the Kennedy assassination, and I think that, in our house, we knew the world was changing.

The story of how he defied the government and risked jail because he refused to kill on command was easy even for a young person to understand.”

So the sports section was political in my family. Political and ethical. “Fighting in sports got nothing to do with going to war,” we were told when Ali refused to be drafted. And Hal Socol knew both those things, especially as a veteran of the Normandy breakout, Metz, the Bulge, Munich, Nuremberg, Buchenwald. He vaguely knew one of the New York State boxing commissioners — the guy had a Lincoln Continental with “TKO” on the license plates — and there were very heated conversationso about taking Ali’s title away. I don’t think my father had anything against the Viet Cong either.

There’d be other heroes, Curt Flood, for his assault on baseball teams owning players for life, but Ali was front and center because the issues were so big. It was Black and White, and Peace and War, and Right and Wrong. And the nation was divided on everything.

In March 1971 I sat by a radio — there was no “free TV” of this fight, if you weren’t at Madison Square Garden you could only see it in theaters — and crying in frustration when Joe Frazier was declared the winner of the ‘Fight of the Century.’ That verdict was impossible to me, and it became more so as Frazier ended up in the hospital the next day.

Yes, I know. How Muhammed Ali tagged Joe Frazier was horribly unfair. Frazier was no ‘Uncle Tom’ — and that Frazier was fighting for the establishment was the establishment’s choice, not Smokin’ Joe’s. But I also know that so much seemed on the line every time Ali fought. He represented peace and conscience and tolerance in a time when American soldiers shot students on their campuses and napalm poured down on Vietnamese villages and the US government overthrew the government of Chile and murdered thousands there.

I write this to say what — despite all else — I was taught in my home. That courage mattered, that war was stupid, that humans mattered, that people deserve our respect — because they are people.

What we teach our children through our words and actions does matter. It wasn’t that my father loved Ali, but why he did. It wasn’t that he cheered Curt Flood, but why he did.

And in the week that The Greatest was laid to rest in Louisville, we saw incomprehensible statements from parents, a school counselor, and judges in the Brock Turner Sex Criminal case. And we saw — again — the whirlwind reaped when a nation thrills to hate speech and loves assault rifles more than human life.

Who raised these people? Who were the heroes in the childhood homes of Brock Turner’s parents or Judge Persky? What was celebrated when Speaker Paul Ryan was a boy? How about in the home of the Orlando terrorist?

I don’t say this to lay blame on parents for what their adult children do. Humans are crafted in many ways. But I also doubt that Judge Persky could have said what he said from the bench if he had been raised in a home that considered all people equal before either God or the law. I doubt Turner’s father could have written what he wrote if a person like Muhammad Ali had been a hero in the home where he grew up. I doubt Paul Ryan could oppose access to health care, marriage equality, and “well regulat[ions]” on the tools of terrorism and mass murder if his childhood had included the same heroes as mine. I doubt someone raised in a home that respected everyone’s personal choices would have massacred people for the “crime” of going out to a safe place on a Saturday night.

Teach your children well.

I often try to remind educators that everything we do and say teaches. Everything. When we tell members of a team they are special we help create Brock Turners. When we create honor rolls we help create Judge Perskys. If we let our prejudices into our speech or actions we help create people prone to terrorism.

I suppose that we need to remind parents too.

  • Ira Socol

You, who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so, become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye

Teach your children well
Their father's hell did slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you'll know by

Don't you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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