During the 1960’s and ‘70’s decades three famous black men helped me make difficult life decisions. Getting help from a trio of black men may sound odd coming from a middle class Caucasian guy. I grew up in a white family transplanted from Missouri to Southern California via short detours to Detroit and San Antonio. When their car finally ran out of gas in Inglewood, California I was two years old.
My parents, despite California’s liberal lifestyle, never got over their inbred aversion for blacks. Ironically, they loved to listen to Amos n’ Andy on the radio and later laugh at Redd Foxx’s hijinks on the Sandford & Son T.V. comedy.
“The Greatest” | Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay)
In school I was an L.A. Dodgers baseball fan. I never had any interest in boxing until a brash young kid from Kentucky named Cassius Clay bragged that he would win a gold medal at the ’60 Rome Olympics. How could a black kid from Louisville with little education rise to such heights? My question was answered weeks later when Clay left the Polish light-heavy weight boxer ‘Ziggy’ Pietrzykowski slumped helplessly against the ropes to win the gold medal in Rome.
Fast forward Four years, I was going nowhere in high school. The audacious, unproven Cassius Clay screamed into the T.V. cameras that he would defeat the brute heavyweight Sonny Liston for the world-boxing crown.
When Liston surrendered before the 7th round bell I told myself, “If Clay can accomplish such a feat coming from a poor black family in Louisville, then I should be able to make something out of my life.” I steadily improved my grades up until graduation.
“The Greatest” defended his crown several times until in ‘67 Clay, now Muhammad Ali, was stripped of his title due to his refusal to be drafted to army service. Consequently, I joined the U.S. Army, which probably saved my life after losing my direction at a local college. While attending a US Army signal school at Ft. Monmouth, NJ I saw a Broadway play in New York City starring Muhammad Ali. As the curtains rose, Ali marched down the center aisle wearing an African robe, like an ancient African king. Sitting on the aisle, I looked up to him.
“The Conquering Lion” | His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie
Following Fort Monmouth, the US Army assigned me to Germany, but it was short lived. I volunteered for an open assignment in some far off place in Africa called Kagnew Station, Asmara, Ethiopia.
“His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie 1, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God.”
My introduction to Haile Selassie, “The Conquering Lion,” came near the end of his forty-some years of epic rule. Like Muhammad Ali, the short, bearded leader had little education before being thrust into leadership of the fragile nation of Ethiopia in 1930.
As war approached with Italy, he must have felt all-alone in the world traveling to Switzerland in 1936 to address the League of Nations. Not only did he secure help against the Italian invaders, but his moving speech reminded members that they had to take a stand against fascism. As a result, “The Conquering Lion of Judah” garnered the respect of leaders worldwide.
Without Haile Selassie’s actions at Geneva there would have been no US military base called Kagnew Station in Asmara, a place that will forever haunt me. In 1970 I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of the emperor when he visited the Kagnew Station dental office for a checkup. Thereafter I looked up to the diminutive emperor.
“The Genius” | Ray Charles
The fabled musician/singer Ray Charles was blinded in his youth. It didn’t stop him from ruling over people’s souls through his music. “The Genius,” with no education, learned piano notes by ear.
I first heard Ray Charles in 1972 when I left the army and returned to Southern California. I enrolled in the spring semester at a local college with the intent to obtain a technical degree. My plan was to use the BS degree as a springboard to international assignments. Ironically, Ray Charles’s music reminded me of the family summer trips back to Sikeston, Missouri during my youth in, “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Following college, I enjoyed a good paying job with a future in El Segundo, California near LAX Airport. On a whim six months earlier I had sent an application the the U.S. Department of State for a job as a radio technician in the Foreign Service. Recently, they had requested an interview in Washington D.C.
I think best, alone, and with a six pack of beer. I went out to my car one evening, sat in the drivers seat and popped “Ray Charles Greatest Hits” into the eight-track player. While Ray sang “Unchain My Heart” I decided to attend the Foreign Service interview. What did I have to lose?
The Passing of the Three Black Kings
The three black kings have all passed on. Each had difficulties later in life. Muhammad Ali succombed to the years of pugilistic punishment to his body, especially to his head. Stricken with Parkinson’s Disease, it affected his speech. Despite the debilitating disease, he inspired millions around the world until his death in 2016.
The winds of change closed the US Army Kagnew Station signals base at Asmara, Ethiopia in the mid-1970s. Emperor Haile Selassie’s government soon tumbled and the Soviet-backed DERG took over. The newspapers of the world showed a photo of the disheveled emperor Haile Selassie being unceremoniously escorted into an old Volkswagen Beetle after leaving the royal palace for the last time. Months later in 1974 he died in prison under suspicious circumstances.
At the time I was working on an island in the Pacific called Kwajalein, a missile test range. It saddened me to hear of Haile Selassie’s death. I thought of returning to Asmara when my assignment would be completed the following spring. But by then it was too late, the new DERG government had joined forces with the Soviet Union and civil war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was eminent.
Ray Charles had been addicted to drugs at an early age. In later life his heroin addiction along with alcohol had exacerbated his condition, but he continued to play and sing his style of “soul music.” In 2004 he passed away from acute liver disease.
A foundation was created after Ray Charles death, oddly enough for hearing impairments. According to a Wikipedia article, Charles was recorded as saying that the reason he had given so much more time and money to the hearing impaired, rather than the visually impaired, was that music saved his life, and he wouldn’t know what to do if he couldn’t experience it.
The three black kings each left his mark on the world and I for one benefitted from each of them. Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest,” may best be viewed in When We Were Kings, a 1996 documentary about his attempt to regain the world championship from George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, which won an Academy Award. Legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns called Ali, “Maybe the most iconic figure of the 20th century.”
The spirit of Haile Selassie is worshiped as a god by the Rastafarian movement, mostly centered in Jamaica but with members worldwide. They embraced his titles of Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God, and his traditional lineage from Solomon and Sheba.
Listen to “The Genius of Ray Charles” or any of many other soulful albums. Frank Sinatra called him, “The only true genius in show business.”