One of the best memories of my early years as a pioneering Black journalist in Milwaukee came June 9, 1965, as the only reporter in the city—Black or White—to interview Muhammad Ali during his three-hour visit on the Near North Side.
On my first daily newspaper job, I was at my Milwaukee Sentinel city room desk handling police rewrite when a call came in telling us Ali had unexpectedly showed up at 6:30 p.m. at Muhammad’s Mosque No. 3, at 2463 N. Third St., near W. Wright. St.
Since I was the lone Black reporter on staff, the White city editor assigned me to rush to the scene for an interview with the 23-year-old heavyweight champion he still called Cassius Clay. Recently converted to Islam, Ali was fresh from his controversial first round knockout of the fearsome Charles “Sonny” Liston.
Sensing this was my career chance of a lifetime, I got a photographer and we sped to the crowded scene in his car and parked across the street. After being frisked by members of the local Black Muslim’s Fruit of Islam—including Leroy Monroe, a pal of mine from Lincoln High School—I saw that the White photographer was not permitted inside.
Entering the Mosque at 8:15 p.m., I spotted Ali seated to the rear of the podium. As a representative of the press, I was led to a seat in the front row on the male side of the wide center aisle. In our interview later, Ali told me this separation of the genders allows those in attendance to focus on the speaker “because you know what men think when they sit next to women.”
After a lengthy introduction by the local Muslim “captain,” the tall Ali rose and talked for two hours. Some of his pointed and funny comments, on which I took notes, included:
“I was in Chicago five hours ago driving around doing nothing. I just remembered they had a Temple 90 miles away. I ain’t had nothing else to do so I thought I’d visit my brothers and sisters there. You alla’ time read about great Negroes like me, but never got a chance to meet them. I would have liked to walk up on Joe Louis, but I couldn’t.
“We have been brainwashed for 400 years by Whites. They make us believe that everything good is white—Jesus Christ, Tarzan, Santa Claus—even White Owl cigars on TV commercials. Where does the President live? In the White House.”
When Ali finished a phrase, the crowd of about 300 would say, “That’s right.” When he asked something, the captain would say, “Good question.”
Ali: Black Beats White
Ali said black beats white. “Good, black dirt is best; strong, black coffee is best; the judge wears a black robe and is ‘your honor’; the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”
Ali related an incident in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky in 1960—after he returned from winning a boxing championship at the Rome Olympics—that awakened his racial awareness. He said a very dark-skinned African was able to get a cup of coffee in a restaurant at the same time he was refused service.
He asked the man “who was so black till he was blue,” how he got served when Ali was lighter in complexion. “Because I have a flag,” the man said.
“Now I have a flag,” Ali the shouted from the stage, alluding to his Islam conversion. “That’s right,” the audience shouted back. He said that was when he “started to talk—to use my mouth. I said I am the greatest. All my opponents must fall. And they did.”
Don’t Call Him Cassius
During our interview outside the Mosque following his sermon, someone in the big crowd yelled “Hey, Cassius Clay.” His response: “Don’t call me Cassius Clayyyy …” And another voice in the crowd shouted: “You can whup anybody.”
As a lifelong fight fan, I asked Ali, point blank, about the infamous “phantom punch” with which he knocked out Liston in their controversial return match two weeks earlier. He said, “I hit that chump horrrrd,” adding that “Sonny Liston was just plain afraid of me.”
And yet, I clearly recall Joe Louis, the famed “Brown Bomber,” as a ringside commentator for the closed-circuit telecast I saw at the downtown Warner Theater, had this to say of the blow Ali used to KO Liston: “That punch was like throwing corn flakes at a battleship.”
If Ali arrived in Milwaukee unnoticed, he did not leave that way. Eight police cars and a throng of about 200 onlookers had gathered—held back by motorcycle patrolmen. A city bus was blocked and cars stopped in mid-street as Ali spent the next 45 minutes happily signing autographs and posing for pictures.
Under police escort, Ali entered the Black Muslim grocery store next door at 2461 N. Third Street and made a long-distance telephone call. Emerging, he climbed into his 1965 black Cadillac convertible aside his personal secretary, Howard Bingham, and sped off.
The next morning — June 10 — my long, by-lined story prominently appeared in The Sentinel under the headline: “Clay—er—Muhammad Ali Was Here. Visit Startles Mosque Members.” Accompanying the story was a photo of Ali holding a startled young girl while a smiling, helmeted Black motorcycle cop looked on.
Muhammad Ali is gone, having passed away in 2016 at age 74. The self-described “greatest of all times” made his mark as much outside the ring as in. He was, indeed, special. And I will never forget the time I was privileged to meet, and talk with hm, as a Black journalist in Milwaukee in June 1965.