In 1960, Muhammad Ali returned to his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky as a victorious gold-medalist. Soon after, he was denied service at a ‘whites only’ restaurant and threw his medal into to the depths of the Ohio River.
Some claim that story to be apocryphal, but, whether fact or parable, Ali described the experience in detail in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story. It’s a power story, worth excerpting at length here:
So what I remember most about the summer of 1960 is not the hero welcome, the celebrations, the Police Chief, the Mayor, the Governor, or even the ten Louisville millionaires, but that night when I stood on the Jefferson County Bridge and threw my Olympic Gold Medal down to the bottom of the Ohio River.
A few minutes earlier I had fought a man almost to the death because he wanted to take it from me, just as I had been willing to fight to the death in the ring to win it.
It had taken six years of blood, blows, pain, sweat, struggle, a thousand rounds in rings and gyms to win that medal, a prize I had dreamed of holding since I was a child. Now I had thrown it in the river. And I felt no pain and no regret. Only relief, and a new strength.
I had turned pro. In my pocket was my agreement with the ten Louisville millionaires, our “marriage contract” for six years. I felt as sure as day and night that I would one day be the World Heavyweight Champion. But my Olympic honeymoon as a White Hope had ended. It was not a change I wanted to tell the world about yet. I would be champion. My own kind of champion.
The honeymoon had started when my plane touched down at Standiford Field. They opened the door and my mother rushed up to hug me. Then my brother Rudy and Dad. I had been gone for twenty-one days, the most time I’d been away since the day I was born.
Then came the celebrations: the long police escort all the way downtown; black and white crowds on the streets and sidewalks; WELCOME HOME CASSIUS CLAY signs from my classmates at Central High; the Mayon telling me the Olympic Gold Medal was my key to the city; plans under way for me to have my picture taken with President Eisenhower.
…One Kentucky newspaper described my medal as “the biggest prize any black boy ever brought back to Louisville.” But if a white boy had brought back anything better to this city, where only race horses and whiskey were important, I hadn’t heard about it.
…And although I was still hit with some of the same race hostility I’d known all my life, my spirits were so high I gelt whoever was against me would change. Even those whose resentment made them go through the acknowledgements half-heartedly or with no heart at all. Those who came only out of curiosity, and looked disgusted when they learned they had to honor a black boy.
I was deeply proud of having represented America on a world stage. To me the Gold Medal was more than a symbol of what I had achieved for myself and my country; there was something I expected the medal to achieve for me. And during those first few days of homecoming it seemed to be doing exactly that.
I remember the crowds that followed us down the street where we lived. The porch of our house was decked with American flags, and my father had painted the steps red, white and blue. Photographers yelled, “Hold it! Hold it!” and I posed for a minute, arm-in-arm with my father as he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in his best Russ Columbo style. We stood proud. Everybody cheered.
…It was getting cloudy, and Ronnie and I raced our motorbikes across downtown Louisville. There had been a forecast of high wind and heavy rain, and the first sprinkle came when we passed a newly remodeled restaurant. I slowed down.
“Not there, not there!” Ronnie warned and kept his motor going.
But I stopped and parked near a line of big Harley-Davidson hogs. Their owners, a leather-jacketed gang, were sitting at tables near the window with their girl friends. Nazi insignias on their backs, Confederate flags painted on the front, a style popular with some whites in the East End. One they called “Kentucky Slim” I’d seen at my fights. Slim gave me a nod. Their leader, a big redhead with doubled-up leg chains hanging from his shoulder, sat with his arms around a heavy blonde. “Frog,” as we knew him, never looked up, although I new he saw me.
I found two empty seats at the country, and as Ronnie caught up I sat down and picked up a menu. A young waitress quickly came up and placed napkins, silverware and a glass of water in front of us.
“Two hamburgers. Two milk shakes, vanilla,” Ronnie said, but as the waitress moved back to the kitchen a big, beefy man with a hung-over stomach motioned for her to come where he sat near the cash register.
Whatever his words, they were brief, The waitress disappeared inside the kitchen, and after what seemed a long time, appeared again, talking to one of the kitchen help, an old, thin-faced black woman who just stood at the door, looking down my way and trying to say something.
In those days most of the restaurants, hotels and movies in Louisville, as in all of the South, were either closed to blacks or had segregated sections.
The white girl finally came back and whispered as though she had something confidential to tell me. “We can’t serve you here.”
Ronnie mutter under his breath, and I nudged him to be quiet. It felt good to be so calm and prepared for what I thought was coming. My Gold Medal would be the solution to the whole thing.
…”Miss,” I began politely, believing she was acting out of ignorance. “I’m Cassius Clay. The Olympic Champion.”
Ronnie proudly pulled the medal from under my T-shirt and adjusted the red, white and blue ribbon. He flashed it to show the Italian word pugilato. Oh, how he admired and loved it. Maybe even more that I did.
The waitress was impressed. Without hesitation she dashed down the counter to The Owner, and spoke in urgent, hushed whispers. He never turned around.
“I don’t give a damn who he is!”
The voice boomed with such force that everyone’s head jerked up from their plates.
“I done told you, we don’t serve no niggers!”
She put her hands over her face as though she had been hit, backed up, hurried to me and began repeating the message, as though I hadn’t heard it. It got real quite.
I remember looking directly into the eyes of a white high school boy with a Manual High sweater, no older than myself, who’d been admiring my medal a minute before. Manual High was a rival school to my own Central High, and he played on the opposing teams. He looked down at the floor.
My heart was pounding. A minute before, this had been a noisy, chatty place with thirty or more customers. I pushed away from the counter. Ronnie went through every motion with me as though we’d rehearsed the act. I stood up. Knives, forks and chitchat stopped, and all eyes were on me. My mouth felt hot and dry. Never in a hundred fights did I feel blood rushing to my head as I did then.
I tried to meet the eyes of the whites along the country, but the only eyes looking into mine were those of the old black woman from the kitchen. She came through the door, a large cross hanging from her neck, trying to get my attention by waving a small book that looked like a prayer book.
Then The Owner, arms folded, his huge stomach bulging over his apron tie, started out from around the counter as if to give me a personal message. I backed off to the center. For an instant I had an urge to dig a right cross in the pit of his stomach, then a left hook to his mouth, then uppercut…and to this day I wonder if I shouldn’t have obeyed that urge.
But my outlook on “fighting” had undergone a total change since the days when I scrapped in the streets and schoolyards at the slightest excuse. I had already signed for my first professional bout. It’s part go the pride of a truly professional fighter not to indulge himself, not to be caught dead or alive in a free-for-all.
Most important, I had in mind another approach, one I was sure would work. I would make them feel ashamed of what they were doing. If necessary, I would stay here until they took me to jail.
I got myself together to tell them everything I’d been thinking. “This is supposed to be the land of the brave and the home of the free, and you’re disgracing it with your actions. You all know me. I was born in General Hospital, only a block away. I was raised here. I went to Central High. And now I’ve brought back an Olympic Gold Medal for all the people of Louisville. I fought for the glory of my country and you should be ashamed of what you’re doing. You serve any foreigner here, but not an American Negro citizen. You’ll have to take me to jail, because I’ll stay until I get my rights. You should be ashamed…”
But I never said a word.
The words wouldn’t come out. Something there wouldn’t let the words come out. Instead of making them feel ashamed, I felt shamed. Shamed and shocked and lonesome.
…I had been standing there for less than a minute, but it seemed like a year. Ronnie was saying, almost in disbelief, “They don’t really know who you are. They just don’t know you The Champion! I ain’t scared to tell ‘em!.” Then, almost like an announcer in the ring, “Folks, this is The Champion! Louisville’s Olympic Champion! Just back from Italy.”
I heard my stomach growl. “Ronnie! Shut up! Don’t beg. Don’t beg!”
“You got sponsors,” Ronnie said. “Call them sponsors.” He reached inside my pocket for the list of the millionaires. “Go ‘head. Call ‘em up, tell ‘em what’s happening. They can buy and sell this little funky place with their pocket change. Watch their faces when Mr. Vicerory tells ‘em.”
…How could I explain: my millionaires were the real rulers of Louisville. But I did not want to be considered “their” boy even in the eyes of those who hated me. I had earned my Gold Medal without their permission. It should mean something without their permission. I wanted that medallion to mean that I owned myself. And to call, seemed to me, to be exchanging one Owner for the Other. And suppose they did come to my rescue? Then I could come and go in the “white only” please, but other blacks couldn’t. Then what would I be?
I moved closer to the door, keeping my eyes on The Owner. I felt a peculiar, miserable pain in my head and stomach. The pain that comes from punches you take without hitting back.
Whatever illusions I’d built up in Rome as the All-American Boy were gone. My Olympic honeymoon was over. I was back in my Old Kentucky Home.
Ali leaves the restaurant.
…I remember thinking that the middle of the Ohio was probably the deepest part, and I walked over to the center of the bridge. An Ronnie, with that extra sense people who have known and loved each other for a long time, anticipated my actions. Dropping the bike, he ran towards me, yelling. But I had snapped the ribbon from around my neck. I held the medallion just far enough out so that it wouldn’t tangle in the bridge structure, and threw it into the black water of the Ohio. I watched it drag the red, white and blue ribbon down to the bottom behind it.
When I turned, Ronnie had a look of horror in his eyes. “Jesus. Oh, my God!” Then tears came down his cheeks. “Oh, my God. You know what you did?”
“It wasn’t real gold. It was phony.” I tried to put my arms around him. He was wet and cold and stiff. “It was phony.”
He wasn’t listen. “Why you throw it in the river? Why?”
How could I put the answer together? I wasn’t sure of all the reasons. The Olympic medal had been the most precious thing that had ever come to me. I worshiped it. It was proof of performance, status, a symbol of belonging, of being part of a team, a country, a world. It was my way of redeeming myself with my teachers and schoolmates at Central High, of letting them know that although I had not won scholastic victories, there was something inside of me capable of victory.
How could I explain to Ronnie I wanted something that meant more than that? Something that was as proud of me as I would be of it. Something that would let me be what I knew I had to be, my own kind of champion.
“We don’t need it,” I said. “We don’t need it.”