February is #BlackHistoryMonth across America, and I’ll be celebrating the moxie of a few of our nation’s most compelling people. Today is all about Lonnie Ali, the loving wife of Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali.
In retrospect, it’s a remarkable image.
In 1963, photographer Steve Schapiro snapped a picture of Cassius Clay visiting his hometown of Louisville, Ky. He’s seated on a front porch, surrounded by a gaggle of gleeful young lads, all eager to enjoy the presence of the boxer already on his way to becoming the Greatest Of All Time. In front of him stands a sweet faced, pigtailed little 6-year-old girl, the only girl in the picture. She’s looking him in the eyes, her gaze shy but direct. He’s looking back at her with the same warm, playful, engaging manner that fell upon nearly everyone in his path, and especially upon children.
It would be at least another decade before that little girl named Lonnie realized that she loved that boxer and hometown hero, now known as Muhammad Ali, and wanted to marry him one day.
In 1986 that realization became reality. The union of Muhammad and Lonnie Ali would last three decades until his death in 2016.
How amazing that the very moment they first met was captured in black and white.
It takes moxie to marry a world-renowned athlete, and Muhammad Ali was more than an athlete. He transcended sport. He was a larger than life figure with seemingly boundless courage, willing to risk everything to stand on principle.
Marriage to a cultural icon requires a particular kind of strength and fortitude. Here’s how I see moxie in Lonnie’s life:
She has the strength to lead and the humility to support.
While she dreamed of marrying Ali when she was just 17, Lonnie didn’t sit around mooning over the boxer. She pursued her education, earning an undergraduate degree in psychology from Vanderbilt University in 1978, and began building her career in sales and marketing. Then, as fate would have it, she reconnected with her childhood crush over lunch in 1982.
She was dismayed by what she saw. The vibrant young man she remembered from her youth was clearly deteriorating physically. He had largely withdrawn from the world and had holed up in his Los Angeles mansion.
She agreed to move to LA and care for him in exchange for his support while she pursued her MBA. It was a good decision for both of them. She provided the structured care and support he needed. She earned her degree from UCLA, and by the time they married in 1986 she was seeing to both his physical health and his financial health.
But for Lonnie’s intervention, Ali might have faded into obscurity and perhaps even have become another sad story of a great athlete who ended up penniless. But Lonnie’s shrewd management pulled Ali back from the brink and set the stage for building a legacy that will survive for years to come.
Lonnie could have turned away when she saw Ali’s condition, but she had the moxie to stick by his side. Thanks to her moxie, it might be argued that Ali’s golden years were truly that – golden. People with moxie have the strength to serve others and look out for their best interests.
No time for regrets.
Throughout much of their marriage, Lonnie served as Ali’s primary caregiver. She made sure he did his therapy, made it to doctor’s appointments, took his medication. His healthiest years were already past by the time they married — he was 44 and signs of Parkinson’s disease were already showing, while she was 29.
Lonnie might have grieved the loss of those earlier, healthier years with her love, but she hasn’t mentioned it. Instead, she focused on Ali’s indomitable spirit and celebrating all that they did enjoy together. Neither did she seem to fear the future and her husband’s inevitable decline in health.
Even when he could no longer use his voice to speak to her, they still communicated silently with a glance, an expression, a gesture. Lonnie so tuned in to her husband that words weren’t necessary.
It takes moxie to be present, and not dwell on the past or project into the future.
Though she did not seek the spotlight while Ali was alive, she stepped into it gracefully upon his passing.
No loving spouse is ever really prepared for the passing of their partner, and Lonnie Ali was no different. She was initially gripped by disbelief, despite the serious illness he endured shortly before he passed away. It was hard for anyone to imagine such a force as vibrant as Muhammad Ali just gone.
In the midst of her grief, she saw to it that her husband’s wishes for his final farewell were carried out flawlessly. His funeral brought together thousands from around the globe, leaders from a variety of faith groups, and his family.
Then, she rose to offer her eulogy of her life-long love. In a calm, steady voice, with the upper half of her face obscured beneath the shadow of her wide-brimmed black hat, she reminded the world of her husband’s perseverance, hope and desire for peace among all people. She encouraged others to carry on his work.
At a cultural moment when Black Lives Matter protestors and police officers were at odds, she reminded all those in attendance that Ali got his start as a boxer under the tutelage of a white police officer.
“When a cop and an intercity kid talk to one another, miracles can happen,” said Lonnie. She urged others to keep his legacy.
Lonnie has dedicated her life not to building her own legacy, but to preserving and ensuring Muhammad Ali’s. And she clearly sees his legacy not in his endorsement deals or wealth, but in his desire to bring people together peacefully. It takes moxie to buy into an idea larger than yourself, and to spend your life furthering that idea.
I’d love to talk to Lonnie one day. If I ever get the chance, what should I ask?