In early 1970, Charles Harris, the black godfather of publishing black writers at major commercial houses, obtained for Random House the rights to print the autobiography of Muhammad Ali. Harris was to edit Ali’s words as collected and written by black Chicago multimedia journalist Richard Durham, who as editor of “Muhammad Speaks,” the news organ of the Muslim sect Nation of Islam to which Ali belonged, got to know Ali very well.
But shortly after his big score, Harris was lured to Howard University to start the first black university press in the country. In his departure, he dropped the Ali project in the lap of Random House’s first black female editor, known for much of her 39 years then as Chloe Anthony Wofford. She’d just succeeded in having her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” published under the nickname Toni.
She was Toni Morrison.
“[Durham had] been in the business forever as a journalist and editor,” Morrison told Howard professor Sonja Williams in Williams’s 2015 biography of Durham, “Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom.” “I had published this one little book which I don’t think he liked much.”
But five years later, a few years after Ali beat the United States in the Supreme Court for his right to fight, and a month after he beat Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila,” the last of the pair’s epic trilogy, “The Greatest: My Own Story,” edited by Morrison, hit bookstores in 1975.
It was snapped up with enough fervor to become a bestseller. It immediately entered the pantheon of the most important narratives told by a black athlete during what was a racial awareness renaissance of sorts after the urban rebellions of the late 1960s. It followed “From Ghetto to Glory” by pitcher Bob Gibson, published in 1968; “The Way It Is” by center fielder Curt Flood, printed in 1971; and “I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson,” bound in 1972.
And Morrison, who died Monday at 88, went on herself to enter the writers’ pantheon, and not just in the black sphere. She was honored with a Nobel Prize in literature, the first black woman so cited. Her works, mostly fiction, exhumed the anguish of being black in America, particularly for black women, in spellbinding prose. “The Greatest” was a signpost of what was to come.
“[Black athlete biographies] give us good background on growing up black in that generation and being black athletes in white spaces,” explained Louis Moore, a history professor at Grand Valley State University who focuses on race and sports and most recently wrote “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.”
Over time, though, “The Greatest,” the only sports-themed tome Morrison developed, may have become the most memorable and important.
“What stands out to me about Ali’s,” Moore said, “is that it gives us an insight to how Emmett Till’s murder shaped him, and it gives us the powerful story about his gold medal. . . . It’s so critical to understanding the black athlete in white America.”
Morrison wasn’t a fan of pugilism when she was tasked with editing Ali’s story.
“I don’t like boxing,” she told David Remnick in his book on Ali, “King of the World,” “but he was a thing apart. His grace was almost appalling.”
Morrison expanded with Williams.
“Ali was sort of flirtatious, [but] like a boy almost,” Williams quoted Morrison. “When I first met him, he said, ‘You know, we can have three wives.’ I said, ‘Please! I’m old enough to be your mama!’ ”
But Williams wrote that Morrison thought of Ali as “an absolute delight, and that delightful quality Richard was able to catch.”
Morrison didn’t find editing Ali’s story easy. She revealed to Williams that she often found herself in a struggle with how Jabir Herbert Muhammad, manager of Ali and son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, wanted Ali portrayed.
“Durham warned me that there would be some problems of censorship,” Williams quoted Morrison. “I did feel a little intimidated . . . all of which I defied, by the way.”
For example, Muhammad wanted curse words redacted. “I just couldn’t do it,” Morrison told Williams. “So I just used the initials . . . M.F.”
Muhammad also wanted to sensationalize how Ali parted ways with the Olympic gold medal he won at the Rome Games in 1960, a tale that became central to Ali’s metamorphosis into an unapologetic foe of racism here and abroad.
“The Greatest” told of how Ali, then known by his given name Cassius Clay, cast his medal off a bridge into the Ohio River in his hometown of Louisville after being denied service at a restaurant because of his skin color and harassed by a white motorcycle gang. Morrison told Remnick how quickly Ali denied that story after the book’s release.
“So he, in a sense, discredited the book in a way that was unfair to the stories he had told Richard in the first place, or to the stories Richard may have invented to make a point,” she said.
Remnick noted, “Like the autobiographies of Joe Louis and Jack Johnson, ‘The Greatest’ mixes fact and folklore — in this case folklore in the service of Elijah Muhammad’s agenda.”
Whether the story was apocryphal, it represented how Ali came to sacrifice all that he’d earned for his beliefs. Looking back, it also foretold how Morrison would come to illustrate how vexing it is being black in this country.
Upon its release, writer Ishmael Reed reviewed “The Greatest” in the New York Times as “a bone-crushing, quality thriller that belongs in the same class as autobiographies written by Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and James Weldon Johnson.” Random House initially printed nearly a quarter million copies. Columbia Pictures bought its film rights and had Ali play himself when the film debuted in 1977.
Richard Durham died in 1984. His son, Mark, an old friend of mine, reflected on Morrison’s importance in assisting his father.
“She was a real advocate in allowing us to tell the story,” he said, “from Ali’s perspective.”
Just as she excelled at telling the story of all black people from our viewpoint.