Muhammad Ali Never Knew Grandfather Was Jailed for 25-Cent Murder
AS the petal-strewn hearse carrying Muhammad Ali's casket drove slowly through Louisville's west end, still overwhelmingly black and wracked by poverty and crime, the inhabitants of the streets where the champion boxer grew up reclaimed him as one of their own.
But even after a week-long celebration of the life of the man who was born Cassius Clay 74 years earlier, one secret about his family remained.
Unknown to Ali, the grandfather who he loved and whose racial pride was a profound early influence had been convicted of murder after shooting a man dead with a .38-calibre revolver during a west end craps game in November 1900.
Herman Heaton Clay, who died in 1954, when Ali was 12, and is believed to have been the son of a slave, was the future world heavyweight champion's paternal grandfather.
As a young boy, Ali would often visit his grandfather at his home on Dumesnil Street, less than a mile from the house on Grand Avenue where he grew up.
Herman's first job had been cleaning spittoons in a whites-only bar, something he resented deeply. Ali's first stirrings of racial consciousness are believed to have been at his grandfather's knee.
Jonathan Eig, author of a forthcoming biography of Ali and who unearthed Herman Clay's conviction, said he believed the grandfather viewed the murder as a "shame in the family". He said: "Several of the relatives heard he'd spent time in jail but they didn't know why.
"He worked as an ice man and a railroad man. The one thing the family told me was that he always said don't work for the white man, try to be independent, don't take one of these jobs where you're beholden to the white man."
Newspaper accounts and court testimony record that Herman Clay, then 24, was sentenced to life in prison for shooting Charles Dickey, another black man, through the heart after a dispute when Herman stole 25 cents - about $5 today - from a craps table.
"Herman said he felt like he had to defend himself, that Dickey was approaching him carrying a cane and he thought he was going to hit him with it. So Herman pulled his gun and shot him."
He was released after serving just six years and went on to marry and father 12 children. One of them was Ali's father Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr, named as a tribute to the white slave owner and abolitionist Cassius Clay.
Standing on Grand Avenue, Terry Stoudemire, 54, said that more than 100,000 people had turned out to bid Ali farewell in large part because he never forgot where he was from.
"Ali was more than a sportsman," he said, recalling his anti-war activism, which led to him being charged for refusing to serve in Vietnam, his conversion to Islam and his outspoken demands for black rights. Ali's father, moreover, drank and hit his mother.
"He came from the here in the hood," Stoudemire, a hotel security guard, said. "He'd walk through here with no bodyguards and he'd know everybody. He was just so loved nobody wanted to pull a gun on him. He taught us that if you believe in your dreams strong enough, you can go as far as you ever want.
"He showed us that we didn't have to bow down to oppression, he said that even if it's going to put me in jail, I'm going to run my mouth and tell you what I feel."
Everywhere in Louisville, the love for Ali was apparent. Larry Holmes, who was Ali's sparring partner for four years from 1971, told The Sunday Times of the pain he felt about becoming the only boxer ever to have stopped Ali, during their bout in 1980.
"I did not want to fight because I knew he was too old," he said. Ali was 38, seven years older than Holmes, and, unbeknown to his opponent, had just been diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson's.
"It wasn't a fight fight thing, it was a money money thing," said Holmes. "It was hard to turn down $10m, which is what Ali was getting, and I got $3.5m.
"I knew him like a book, he was my brother and I'd sparred with him for hundreds of rounds. I never tried to show him up. It was about him. Not me. I was nothing. I said to him in the ring, 'Don't get hurt'. I told him to stop, you know, don't take no more."
Holmes dominated the fight, which was stopped after 10 rounds."When I went in the dressing room after the fight I gave him a hug and I said, 'I love you, man'. And he said, 'If you love me, why did you kick my ass? Why did you beat me up like that?'
"It was all fun. We'd talk a lot of shit to each other." Holmes eyes welled with tears as he recalled his last meeting with Ali, who couldn't speak and was "really shaking and shaking and shaking".
He said: "I told my wife, it's not good. My heart just went out, you know."
On Friday, former American president Bill Clinton eulogised Ali after a 23-mile procession by a 17-car cortege that ended with the boxer's burial at Cave Hill cemetery outside Louisville. David Beckham, Will Smith - who had the title role in the film biopic Ali - Whoopi Goldberg, King Abdullah of Jordan and former Afghan president Hamid Karzai were among the mourners.
But Ali, who had made his own funeral arrangements more than a decade earlier, had wanted people like him to be at the centre of events. One of them was Lennox Lewis, the black British boxer who was the last undisputed world heavyweight champion from 1999 to 2000.
A pallbearer during Ali's funeral procession, Lennox, 50, told The Sunday Times: "I remember when I was nine years old and the Ali shuffle was what I wanted to see.
"He was very confident, charismatic. He was a poet, he was a preacher, he was a philosopher. All around the world, especially in America, there was always racial problems. And he said to black kids, 'Black is beautiful. Don't run away from your colour'. And that idea was powerful.
At the time, there was brothers out there doing their hair like this and that. He said to them, 'What are you doing? You're beautiful. Don't be afraid of how you look. That really affected me."
He recalled how his idol watched him fight in Canada and approached him after the fight. "He whispered to me, 'I used to be the greatest but now you're the greatest'. And I said: 'No Muhammad, you'll always be the greatest'."
In Louisville's west end, there was no doubt on Friday that Ali was indeed the greatest, as he liked to call himself. And he hadn't become the greatest despite his background as a poor black child brought up in an area where crime, violence and hardship were everywhere - but because of it.
Eig, whose book "Ali: A Life" is due to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next year, reflected: "It's just so remarkable to think that a guy could come from three generations removed from slavery, two generations from a convicted murderer and one generation removed from a drunken wife beater to become the greatest."
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.