Muhammad Ali was many things to many people, but to EBONY and JET, he was a true friend for decades. He would frequent the Chicago offices with his family, sitting down with the staff and simply joke around with everyone. He proved that he was a real “people’s champion” and had a genuine respect and rapport with everyone he came into contact with.
Johnson Publishing Chairman Linda Johnson Rice fondly recalls Ali’s relationship with the company and its staff.
“He was always so warm and genuine with everyone in the company,” she tells us the morning after Ali, 74, passed away. “It didn’t matter if you were the chef, or the secretary or the executive editor of EBONY.”
During his most tumultuous days, when he was banned from boxing for his refusal to enlist in the U.S. Army due to his objections to the war in Vietnam, he would speak candidly about what he was experiencing, but made clear that he would be undefeated.
“Y’all go and tell everybody Muhammad Ali ain’t licked yet,” he told EBONY’s managing editor Hans Massequoi in 1969.”I don’t care if I never get another fight…A man’s got to stand up for what he believes, and I’m standin’ up for my people even if I have to go to jail.”
Ms. Rice said that was typical of Ali’s character.
“Trust for him at that time was imperative because there were so many news outlets that he couldn’t trust,” said Johnson Rice. “He came because he trusted us. He trusted EBONY and he trusted JET to tell his story. I never saw him down at all.”
She noted that Ali had an innate quality and discipline that drove him morally. “He never lived his life for anything else but what he thought was right,” she insists. “Sometimes that offends people but it never took him off his game.”
Ali also had a lasting friendship with JPC Founder John H. Johnson and would come and visit him to discuss what was happening in his life.
“Without a doubt it was a mutual respect,” Ms. Rice said of her father and Ali. “They were fans of each other and fans of their accomplishments.
“My father was decades older than him, but they had that innate sense of determination to succeed no matter what. There was something… a real respect Black men have for each other,” she explained.
“I think his legacy will be, without a doubt, being true to who you are and what your convictions are. It is your responsibility to make the most of that,” Ms. Rice added. “It’s very clear that being an African American for him was paramount. He felt that you should never put your head down and you should be proud of that and carry that with you.”