If you have been paying attention to the news in the slightest over the last three days or so, you are aware that the professional boxing legend Muhammad Ali has died.
Earlier today, as I was looking through the comment sections of news stories about his death, I read a comment about how he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Hudson River. It seemed like a silly claim. This prompted me to do a little research on the subject.
Here is what I found.
The following is a passage from Ali’s 2004 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly:
“There comes a time in every person’s life when he has to choose the course his life will take. On my journey I have found that the path to self-discovery is the most liberating choice of all.
My Olympic gold medal meant so much to me. It was a symbol of what I had accomplished for myself and for my country. Although I still experienced some of the same racial discrimination that I always had, my spirits were so high that I thought all of that would change.
A Kentucky newspaper wrote that my gold medal was the greatest prize any Black boy ever brought home to Louisville. I was proud, but I remember thinking at the time, if any White boy ever brought back anything greater, I sure didn’t hear about it. It seemed that I had become Louisville’s Black “Great White Hope.” I expected my gold medal to achieve something greater for me. During my first few days home, it seemed to accomplish exactly what I hoped, but soon I had a rude awakening.
I was sure they were finally going to let me eat downtown. In those days almost every restaurant, hotel, and movie theater in Louisville and the entire South was either closed to Blacks, or had segregated sections. But I thought that my medal would open them up to me.
One day my friend Ronnie and I were riding our motor bikes around downtown Louisville, when it began to rain. We parked and walked into a little restaurant, where we sat down and ordered two cheeseburgers and two vanilla milk shakes.
I was so proud, sitting there with my gold medal around my neck. (I wore it everywhere in those days.) The waitress looked at both of us and said, “We don’t serve Negroes.”
I politely replied, “Well, we don’t eat them either.”
I told her I was Cassius Clay, the Olympic Champion. Ronnie pointed to my gold medal.
Then the waitress looked me over again and went to the back, to speak with the manager. Ronnie and I could see them huddled over, talking and looking back at us.
We were sure that now that they knew who I was we would be able to stay and eat, but when the waitress came back, she said that she was sorry, but we had to leave.
As Ronnie and I stood up and walked out of the door, my heart was pounding. I wanted my medal to mean something-the mayor had said it was the key to Louisville. It was supposed to mean freedom and equality. I wanted to tell them all that they should be ashamed. I wanted to tell them that this was supposed to be the land of the free. As I got up and walked out of that restaurant, I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking that
I just wanted America to be America.
I had won the gold medal for America, but I still couldn’t eat in this restaurant in my hometown, the town where they all knew my name, where I was born in General Hospital only a few blocks away. I couldn’t eat in the town where I was raised, where I went to church and led a Christian life. I still couldn’t eat in a restaurant in the town where I went to school and helped the nuns clean the school. Now I had won the gold medal.
But it didn’t mean anything, because I didn’t have the right color skin.
Ronnie wanted me to call one of the millionaires from my sponsoring group and tell them what happened, and I almost did, but more than anything, I wanted that medal to mean that I was my own man and would be respected and treated like any other human being. Then I realized that even if it had been my “Key to the City,” if it could get only me into the “White only” place, then what good was it? What about other Black people?
Later I realized that it was part of God’s plan for me that they wouldn’t serve me that day. Before I was kicked out of the restaurant, I was thinking what the medal could mean for me. The more I thought about it, the more I began to see that if that medal didn’t mean equality for all, it didn’t mean anything at all.
What I remember most about 1960 was the first time I took my gold medal off. From that moment on, I have never placed great value on material things. What really matters is how you feel about yourself. If I had kept that medal I would have lost my pride.
Over the years I have told some people I had lost it, but no one ever found it. That’s because I lost it on purpose. The world should know the truth-it’s somewhere at the bottom of the Ohio River.”
There is dispute as to whether or not this story was merely apocryphal, as some reports claim that during his lifetime, Ali privately claimed to friends that the medal had merely been misplaced. This claim has been backed up by friends such as fellow boxer Bundini Brown, as well as Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.
Which story is true? We may never know. But you can be the judge. Do your own homework, and feel free to comment below!
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Cover Photo Credit: Thomas Leuthard/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)