Muhammad Ali and Newark's unbreakable bond

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on June 10, 2016

Muhammad Ali turns to the crowd as he installs the street sign bearing his name

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The 14 blocks of Muhammad Ali Avenue in Newark run through heart of the Central Ward.

Along that stretch, there's an elementary school, a church that was once a synagogue, two new parks and a mix of trendy townhouses near a commercial strip mall.

But what happened on Oct. 29, 1978, at the spot where the neighborhood thoroughfare intersects with Prince Street, remains a lasting memory – continuing to resonate more than any other changes that residents have seen in 38 years.

That was the day Muhammad Ali, whose life will be celebrated during an interfaith memorial service today, came to Newark for a ceremony to rename Waverly Avenue in his honor.

Thousands were at the corner when Ali placed a street sign bearing his name atop its pole.

The crowd, hyped by his presence and entourage, filled the streets. There were people on the sidewalks, others sitting on fences, clamoring to get a glimpse or an autograph from the people's champ, who died on June 3.

As the world bows its head to remember the boxer, activist and humanitarian symbol of peace, Newark residents hold onto their memories of his 1978 visit like a cherished souvenir.

"That was something that still affects me today,'' said Michael Carter, who now lives in Jersey City.

On the day that the street sign was erected, Carter recalled, he was a young man who had finagled his way up front to collect a lifetime memory.

"I shook his hand,'' said Carter, now 58.

That's what sticks with him, too. Ali's hands were big mitts, with big knuckles, making Carter's hands disappear.

"That's why he was knocking people out,'' Carter said, laughing.

For a few hours that day, Ali had Newark spellbound. People from many blocks brought chairs so they could sit and witness the event. A famous celebrity was on their block, bringing life to the neighborhood, making them proud.

Just about everybody, it seems, was there from the Stella Wright Homes, a seven-building, 13-story public housing development that has since been demolished.

William Miles, 51, was living at Stella Wright as word spread that Ali was coming. He was 14 and remembers the cops telling kids to get off the fence near the playground where they played basketball and ate free lunch.  No one listened. Ali was in town.

"When he came, I was like, 'Wow,' '' Miles said.

For Maria Johnson, Ali's appearance in Newark was historical. She said she believes his pro-black stance reflected the black empowerment movement that was already underway in the city, stemming from Kenneth Gibson's election as Newark's first African-American mayor in 1970.

As the years went by, that movement was reflected in the election of more blacks to the city council. A cousin of Johnson's, Benjamin Johnson, was one of them and so was former Mayor Sharpe James, who said Ali embraced Newark as if he was a resident.

"He was the guy next door,'' James said. "You never felt like you were talking to royalty.''

Ali was a man of conviction, changing his name from Cassius Clay when he joined the Nation of Islam and later refusing to register for the draft because of his religious beliefs.  He was stripped of his championship belt and lost his boxing license until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his position. Afterward, Ali was able to resume a glorious career in which he reclaimed the heavyweight championship in 1974.

Through it all, though, Ali was known to be generous with his time, especially with the elderly and young people.

Some of the children he met were from Newark and surrounding communities. They had traveled to his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., with Carolyn Kelley Shabazz, a Newark resident who was a friend of Ali and used the boxing gym she owned to instill values and discipline in city youth.

But on a special trip – one without out the normal gaggle of kids – Kelley Shabazz took only 10-year-old Jermaine Choyce, of East Orange, to the training camp, hoping to give him a reason to be happy again.

Jermaine had been savagely attacked several months before Ali's 1978 visit to  Newark, said his brother Donovan Walker, who lives in Hillside. The boy was sexually assaulted and stabbed behind an East Orange church. 

The torment, Walker said, left his little brother frightened and afraid to trust anyone – until Kelley Shabazz introduced him to Ali.

"I don't know what Muhammad Ali said to him, but he began to gain trust back in people,'' Walker said. "It was like he (Ali) was his brother.''

Jermaine would see Ali once more at the street-naming ceremony that Kelley Shabazz organized. He would die in a shooting in 1987 at age 22.

But Ali's interaction with Jermaine was one of things that Kelley Shabazz shared with the city council when she asked its members to approve the street name change to honor the legendary boxer.

"He just grabbed him in a bear hug,'' said Kelley Shabazz, describing the first time they met.

And then Ali grabbed Newark, telling the throng of people he was honored that Sunday afternoon.

After 38 years, the city continues to salute him. Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins organized a candlelight vigil in Ali's honor at dusk yesterday.

It was held on the same corner at which Ali climbed a ladder and mounted the sign emblazoned with his name, a place where Ali's life intersected the city's.

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