Dr. Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali, two iconic figures in American history, share birthdays two days apart: January 15th for Dr. King and January 17th for Muhammad Ali. I have been reflecting on the impact that these courageous and visionary men had on my growth and development. It has caused me to pause to connect the dots and to share how their footprints helped to guide my footsteps.
I, like so many, watched the historic 1963 March on Washington on the family black and white TV. I was mesmerized by Dr. King as he presented his “I Have a Dream” speech to the massive throng of people. This was my first encounter with the power of the spoken word delivered by a person with unwavering conviction. I soon discovered that I was drawn to the movement for social justice. In 1967, I along with six college friends traveled to Belzoni, Mississippi to distribute food to hungry Black families living in abject poverty. In 1968, my senior year of college, Dr. King was assassinated. I mourned deeply!
In 2008, two years after I founded the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, we hosted our second National Gathering of Leaders at Morehouse College, which is where a 15-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. began his college years. Around that same time, I was selected by my church to be the chair of our annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. And most recently, my family and I visited both the King Center in Atlanta and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in which his pastoral career was launched. We stood on the porch of the home where he was raised.
Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, was a hero that we loved to love. I followed his boxing career and went to closed circuit showings of many of his matches. I was charmed by his charisma and eloquent boldness. And then the unbelievable happened! A friend and I met Muhammad Ali in a Burger King in my home city of Philadelphia. He was very warm and friendly and generous with his time. Ali asked our names and encouraged us to go and do good work for others. Years later in my capacity as executive director of COSEBOC I was invited by the Campaign for Black Male Achievement to join others who held similar positions to attend special yearly events at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. The Ali Center visits, like the King Center, were memorable experiences.
Today, as we celebrate the lives of these two great men and send them heavenly birthday thoughts, I believe that both men embodied the personal gifts of character, courage, resilience, faith, determination, compassion, hope, and love of the people. I also believe that they would readily encourage us to use these gifts and our own to advance collective work in service of boys and young men of color and humanity. Together we honor the legacies of these two men who changed the world for the better by following in their footprints so that our own footsteps of service are guided by theirs.
Read companion blog by Ron Walker:
Guiding Principles of Dr. Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali: Their Footprints Guided My Footsteps
Learn about COSEBOC’s Professional Development Course:
Footprints and Footsteps