By Valethia Watts
Growing up in the small town of Crofton, KY, taught me so many life lessons. I never knew how close I lived to such a huge icon who people lived up. I was always told that the great Muhammad Ali had family in Hopkinsville, KY, which was 13 miles away, yet there was no evidence that this is true. It still made me feel linked to him in some way.
I grew up in a holiness church so I became interested in other religions when I moved to Louisville in 1995 along with my late son, Jacari Redd. We visited a Baptist Church and later joined to pursue our path to be kingdom-minded; however, I still wanted to know more about the Muslim faith. As time grew on, I experienced some relevant things that Ali spoke of during segregation in his years as a youth only to find it still existed in my time.
During my son’s junior year, he decided that he wanted to visit some colleges and universities to see what options he had to further his educational career. I took on the task of finding visitation dates for him and some of his friends. An alum of Kentucky State University, I wanted to give him that chance also.
One day, I was looking at the news and saw that The Ali Center was hosting an HBCU college day and any student was welcome. I remember posting the date over and over on Facebook so that everyone I knew could have their kids attend. I had never been to the Ali Center so I was more excited than my son. He asked me the day before the event to take him to get a shirt to wear to the event. I agreed — as usual — and we went shopping.
I didn’t understand why he wanted to go to such lengths to look his best at what I perceived to be an information-only event. We searched and searched for a shirt that turned out to be a dress shirt, tie, shoes, and dress pants. I didn’t argue and found myself captivated by his self-perception of this legend’s history without asking anything about him in the beginning.
My son’s instinct was more than what I expected. I was very proud. Before the event started, I searched for more information on Muhammad Ali’s history to get a better view of how he affected the Louisville area. He was known as the “Louisville Lip” and “The Greatest”. I began to understand his opposition to the Vietnam War and that he went to jail as a result of his beliefs. He didn’t dodge the draft and move to Canada. I admired that. I can’t tell you how very different I felt about the greatest when I saw he was great.
On the ride to the college fair, I asked my son was he a leader or a follower. He looked at me and said, “Why do you ask, Mama?” I said that I needed to know before I went to the college fair him because I hoped that we had the same expectations. He replied, “Mama I’m a leader and that’s why I asked you to buy me these clothes to reflect that.” What could I say to that? I was proud to have this opportunity to visit this legacy that was built in my city.
We arrived at the center and I about 100 teenagers excited about to be there. I felt just like them. We walked in and I saw Ali’s legacy all around this beautiful building. I also learned of the different charities that he helped create and he contributed to. From this visit, I realized Muhammad Ali loved his “blackness” and he didn’t hold anything back. There is a room in the center where you can sit and look at the stars on the ceiling. My son looked so alive in that visit and it helped me more than him in every way.
This experience gave me hope. That day with my son meant more to me than anyone can ever understand. I saw so much growth in my teenage son because of another man’s visions that he never met. As I Muhammad Ali’s accomplishments, I ran across the reading program at the center that he ran every summer for kids. He challenged them to read a certain amount of books and rewarded them at the end of the summer. He saw so much in our future that he encouraged young people to be more that what people have told them to be. I changed so many things in my life to be more meaningful. Everything that I did from that day forward had to be important. I am still a Baptist, but I understand Ali’s vision for his people. He not only changed his perception of his original beliefs, but he recanted his statements towards White people and claimed his new vision for Islam.
By simply standing on what he believed, he changed the outlook of so many people. It takes a great person to see more in you than you see in yourself. My son passed 7/23/12 when he drowned in the Ohio River and I miss him now more than ever. I can never forget the hope that Ali gave to him and to so many young people through visiting the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY. It doesn’t take a rich man to be great but it takes a great man to think rich. Thank you Muhammad Ali for your vision for our futures.