During his years exiled from the boxing ring, dethroned heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali found refuge on the South Side of Chicago.
Stripped of his boxing title after refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali immersed himself in Islam, his newfound religion. And as the country that once hailed him as “The Greatest” cast him aside, the South Side – home of the Nation of Islam – stepped in to embrace him.
Shortly after announcing that he had converted to Islam in 1964, Ali spent more than a decade in and out of Chicago. He first settled into a small, third-floor apartment in the 7000 block of South Cregier Avenue. By the time he left Chicago for good in the late 1970s, he had bought a 28-room mansion in Kenwood, two blocks from Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad.
During his early years on the South Side, Ali tried to blend in. He strolled alone underneath the “L” tracks, casually dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. He hung out with friends at the automobile garage at 69th Street and Stony Island Boulevard. Often, he could be found at the Nation of Islam’s bakery on 79th Street, flirting with the teenage waitress who would become his second wife.
“The most crucial time of his life was in Chicago,” said Khalilah Camacho-Ali, a suburban Chicago native who married Ali in 1967. “These exile years were tough for him. He was growing and learning more about the religion. He was learning about life. All of this was during the struggle of the civil rights period, and he saw the rise of racism and the effect of racism on him.”
It was in Chicago, according to those who knew him best, that the transformation from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali took shape. For nearly four years, he lived freely in Chicago while the appeal of his draft evasion conviction made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. With a five-year jail sentence hanging over his head, he went toe to toe with adversity, turning down millions of dollars to stand up for what he believed was right.
On the South Side, people praised him for his courage. In many other places in the country, he was just another a draft dodger.
The 25-year-old Ali and his 17-year-old Muslim bride were married in a small ceremony at their home at 85th Street and South Jeffrey Boulevard in the South Shore neighborhood. The modest, two-bedroom brick bungalow, fully furnished and decorated in light blue, was a gift from the Nation of Islam.
Camacho-Ali said she and Ali, whom she divorced in 1977, lived as “regular people” in Chicago. But there were signs that this was no ordinary couple. Ali’s heavyweight championship belt was displayed in a locked trophy case in the living room. Celebrities such as David Ruffin and other members of the Motown singing group the Temptations came by for dinner. And Ali drove around Chicago in a red Cadillac convertible – a gift from his managers for winning a 1963 fight.
Ali’s notoriety and conversion to Islam also brought unwelcome attention. The year before he married Camacho-Ali, the South Side apartment where he lived with his first wife was severely damaged in a suspicious fire. It occurred the same day that Ali’s friend, Malcolm X, was shot to death in New York.
“Being a Muslim was a big controversy. In America, people objected to him belonging to a controversial group that was a nation within our own nation,” said Camacho-Ali, who grew up in the Nation of Islam. “This stood against everything that his (Christian) mother and father believed in. These were young, tender times, and these were battlefields that he had to go through and learn from.”
But for the most part, Ali could be himself on the South Side, she said.
“He was able to walk the streets of the South Side and be embraced. He felt support because the Muslims were watching his back 24/7. He felt comfortable where he was sitting. He felt comfortable in his life,” his ex-wife said.
Initially, some within the nation questioned Ali’s sincerity, said Salim Muwakkil, the former associate editor of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, The Final Call.
“Muhammad Ali was an aberration to a certain extent and it took a while for many of the more fervent members of the Nation of Islam to warm up to him,” said Muwakkil, now a Chicago journalist and radio talk show host.
“They warmed up to him because Elijah Muhammad said he was good people. He was fully under the influence of the Nation of Islam. Still, he had to prove his passion for the Nation,” said Muwakkil.
One way of showing his loyalty, according to Muwakkil, was to go on the speaking circuit. Ali traveled to college campuses from the University of Chicago to Howard University voicing his opposition to the war. He also became a minister in the Nation of Islam and spoke to massive crowds at the annual Savior’s Day celebration in Chicago.
He was as vocal as Malcolm X when it came to the Nation of Islam, but people on the South Side were drawn to him for another reason.
“He was able to be both larger than life and completely down to earth simultaneously,” said Chicago director Bill Siegel, whose 2014 documentary “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” documented Ali’s four years out of the ring. “His ability to represent himself on an individual level and accept the role of being a symbol of defiance and courage is a huge part of his legacy.”
While making the film, Siegel said he encountered many people who once had casual encounters with Ali in Chicago. One man remembered as a child sitting on Ali’s lap at a Halloween party. A woman recalled the time she got a flat tire on the Dan Ryan Expressway and Ali pulled up in his Cadillac and fixed it for her, Siegel said.
Ali remained a pariah for much of official Illinois. Gov. Otto Kerner called Ali “unpatriotic.” Mayor Richard J. Daley, though sympathetic to Elijah Muhammad and the thousands of potential voters he controlled, refused to call Ali by his Muslim name.
Except for winning the Golden Gloves title in Chicago in 1959, Ali never fought a bout in Chicago. By 1966, he had replaced his Louisville, Ky., management team with a Chicago-based group controlled by the Nation of Islam and headed by Elijah Muhammad’s son, Herbert Muhammad. The anti-Muslim sentiment against him grew deeper.
That year, Ali was to defend his championship against Ernie Terrell in Chicago. But Daley, along with Kerner and other politicians, rescinded his Illinois boxing license so that the fight could not take place in Chicago and urged the Illinois Athletic Commission to cancel the bout altogether.
Ali was at a corner grocery store on 79th Street in 1971 when he heard that the Supreme Court had overturned his conviction. “I had just bought an orange when the owner came out and hugged me with tears in his eyes and told me I’d just been vindicated,” Ali told reporters in a scene shown in the documentary.
After the ruling, the country’s feelings toward Ali softened. Within a few years, Daley had made a complete turnaround. In 1974, after Ali won the championship back from George Foreman, Daley held a reception for Ali at City Hall, where he praised him for “the things the champ stands for” and awarded him the city’s Medal of Merit.
The proclamation read like a poem:
“I Richard J. Daley, mayor of the city
Do proclaim for this champion, clever and witty,
For Muhammad Ali his own special day
For receiving the honors he won the hard way.”
Ali accepted gracefully. Nearly a decade after Daley refused him a boxing license, all was forgiven in his adopted hometown.
“I can’t be angry with him,” Ali told reporters. “Times have changed. I think Daley’s changed.”