‘The Greatest’ had strong ties to North Carolina

Muhammad Ali

‘The Greatest’ had strong ties to North Carolina
June 09
11:30 2016

AP Photo/Franka Bruns



As the world stops to say goodbye Friday, and three-time heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali, who died June 3 at age 74, is laid to rest in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., there are many right here in North Carolina who also hold fond memories of personally knowing and working with “the Champ.”

Ali had many friends in the state, dating back to his early days as a heavyweight champion. Two of them were Minister Kenneth and Sister Margaret Rose Murray-Muhammad of Raleigh.

“It certainly is a tremendous loss to lose him,” Ms. Murray-Muhammad, a retired educator, recalled when reached by phone Saturday morning, hours after the world woke up to news of his death at a Phoenix, Ariz. hospital Friday night. “But, he’s in a better place.”

The Murray-Muhammads became good friends with Ali and during the down times when he wasn’t training for an upcoming fight, Ali would come down to Raleigh and stay with the Murray-Muhammads at their West Raleigh home. “He was so vibrant and full of life,” Mrs. Murray-Muhammad says. ”We were happy to have him come to our home, and he would have been sort of incognito if my neighbor didn’t recognize him and told everybody.”

After a laugh, she added, “But he took it in stride.”

After Ali retired from boxing after 1980, he remained close with the Murray-Muhammads and in 1986, he was the guest of honor at the O. A. Dupree Scholarship Banquet at Shaw University in Raleigh at their invitation. A literal who’s-who of North Carolina political, civic and academic leaders attended, and though Ali’s speech was slurred due to his Parkinson’s Disease, he told the audience how proud he was to be a Muslim, how he was now spending his retirement traveling the world with his wife, Lonnie, giving away autographed copies of the Holy Qu’ran, and bringing joy to people wherever and whenever he could.

“I enjoyed introducing him,” scholarship committee member Geoffrey Simmons recalls proudly. Virtually every North Carolina or Raleigh dignitary who delivered welcome remarks to Ali during the dinner used his famous phrase, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Finally when it was his turn to speak, Ali got up, thanked everyone for coming, and joked that a few of the speakers looked like his arch-rival, Joe Frazier.

When the emcee played a practical joke and gave Ali a  rubber nose as a “Howard Cosell Fake Nose Award,” the champ leaned into the microphone and mumbled, “It’s the wrong color,” bringing the Shaw University gymnasium down with laughter.

After his victory over Sonny Liston to take the heavyweight boxing crown, the federal government soon ordered Ali to report for enlistment in the U.S. Army. Ali refused, saying that his Islamic faith prevented him from taking part in the bloody Vietnam War the U.S. was engaged in. Because of his refusal, the federal government stripped him of his title and passport for three years, preventing Ali from earning a living in the ring.

It was during the initial proceeding in federal court in Houston, Texas, in 1967 that Ali met Cecil Goins.

Mr. Goins, now 90, was one of the few black Federal U.S. Marshals in the nation at the time. Having joined in 1965, Goins was part of security for the historic Selma to Montgomery, Ala. march. The Southern Pines native, NC A&T alum and U.S. Army World War II/Korean War veteran, was based out of the Eastern District North Carolina, but because the Ali case had drawn such worldwide attention, he and another black deputy U.S. Marshal were reassigned to Houston by the U.S. Justice Dept. to provide protection for the controversial prizefighter.

“Our orders were to go down and keep order,” Goins recalls, noting that with a prominent black college, Texas Southern University, right there, huge crowds of young people, as well as protesters, were expected.

“I was with him every day,” Goins said during a phone interview from his Raleigh home on Monday, adding that Ali was in “good shape” because he had been training for an upcoming fight when he had been indicted. Ali was always up early in the morning for prayer and to jog, and then would arrive at the courthouse at least an hour before his 9 a.m. trial.

Ali would use that time to walk the halls and meet people. The U.S. Marshals were required to issue tickets to spectators in order to admit them to the courtroom.

“When there were breaks during the trial, Ali would leave his lawyers and come out to be with the people, “the retired U.S. Marshal says.

As someone who had served in the U.S. Army active duty for many years over two wars, Mr. Goins admits that he didn’t agree with Ali’s refusal to serve at first. But Goins got the chance to speak to the heavyweight champion every day before the trial would start, understand him, and also observe him. Goins was impressed when black militant leader H. Rap Brown came to the Houston courthouse to apparently join with Ali to start a protest against the war, and Goins saw Ali turn Brown away. The champ knew he was facing at least five years in federal prison, he was determined to wage his fight against the Vietnam War through the courts. Goins recalls H. Rap Brown did not come back.

“I agree with the masses of people.  At the time I thought he was dodging to serve in the military. But now I can see his reasoning,” Mr. Goins, who later retired from the U.S. Marshals after 25 years, says. “He had more nerve than most people to do what he did.”

For more coverage of Ali’s passing, click here

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Cash Michaels

Cash Michaels

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