I am blessed to have had a number of men in my life who influenced me. Three in particular I remember during this time.I learned much from my father and my grandfather about the value of work and responsibility. For that I am eternally grateful. So many young black males are forced to navigate through life without ever having a father or grandfather in their lives to teach them, share their experiences, inspire or motivate them.
As I look back over the landscape of my life, I see my footprints in some of the terrain that my father traveled before me. I see the good and the not-so-good, and I recognize the value in both.
My father served with distinction during World War II. He saved the life of a fellow shipmate when their ship was torpedoed by a German submarine. The shipmate’s father happened to be a VIP in Chicago politics. My father was rewarded with a job in City Hall. I often accompanied him to work, where everybody called him “Mister.” To a boy growing up in the most segregated city in America in the ‘60s, it meant a lot to see a black man being respected by blacks and whites alike.
I look back on those times with a deep sense of pride in who my father was and what he went through. Like so many black men of that time, he felt that he needed to enlist and serve his country to prove that he was a man. Most black servicemen ended up in the Army. They were relegated to segregated combat support groups, but they existed in numbers. Those who joined the Navy on the other hand were “cooks,” or what was actually designated “mess attendants.” There was never a need for there to be a lot of black mess attendants on any one ship, so they were subjected more intensely to racism while on board.
Blacks never made up more than 5 percent of the entire Navy, so it was with some distinction that my father got to serve on a ship at all. My father taught me to never confuse the journey with the destination, and to keep my eyes always fixed on the prize.
My grandfather was a janitor. From him I learned my work ethic, that even the most”menial” of jobs can produce staggering wealth if properly approached. He taught me to step outside of conventional thinking and to see the profit potential in any line of work. At his peak, he was responsible for maintaining 44 buildings. They paid him an average of $225 per month–not a lot for any one property. But in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with 44 properties he was earning almost $120k a year. He hired workers and turned his job into a business.
Muhammad Ali taught me something, too: the truth of the scripture that says God did not give us the spirit of fear. For Ali was courage personified. The young people of my generation responded to the brashness of
Muhammad Ali, his willingness to say what so many others felt, his cockiness, too — and most importantly his love of himself. When he said “I am the greatest,” he meant it.
He playfully accused me of all people of having a big head, first when I was appointed the Assistant National Business Manager and General Counsel for the NOI, and again when I was named Director of the Department of Vital Data and Records. I would jokingly tell him that when I really got a big head, I would tell the whole world that I was the greatest of all time. His standard come-back to me was his patented “Man, I wrestled with alligators, tussled with a whale, handcuffed lightning and threw thunder in jail. . . .”
When Ali joined the Nation of Islam he angered many around the country, but he made them understand. He never decided a man’s worth because of the color of his skin. He was a proud black man who was simply pro-black. He was never anti-white. He was anti-injustice, anti-war and anti-hypocrisy.
He took on the U.S. government when he refused to be drafted– and he won that fight. He told America the unpleasant truth about itself– over and over and over again– and he changed people’s minds. On the all too few occasions I spent a little time in his presence, he was as comfortable putting me in a playful headlock as he was speaking at an ivy league university. He fit in with everyone, from heads of state to the brothers on the streets.
I wasn’t part of his entourage. We didn’t hang out together. We only saw each other occasionally– usually at the business office on South Cottage Grove. But to have known him at all was to know that Ali was larger than life. I was in awe of the man, and I was definitely not alone.
Over the years I shared the lessons of my father and grandfather with my daughters and my sons. I stressed the importance of their remembering their forefathers and their struggles in this land.
And I reminded them of the other great man who graced my life, and his contributions to America and to all of the world. And I still tell them to always remember this man, too– this giant of a man who shook up the world: Muhammad Ali, “the greatest of all time.”
May they all rest in peace.