I only saw him once. Close up.
Holy Angels Catholic Church, the African-American Catholic Church in South Side Chicago, was packed. Father George Clements, a bold community leader on the South Side, had convened the community meeting.
I don’t recall why we were there that afternoon. I only remember who was there.
Two pews in front of us sat a Michelangelo-chiseled figure of flesh and blood in a black suit. Massive square shoulders, thick muscled neck, beyond regal…a Greek god, Atlas perhaps, sitting erect and still, near the back of the crowed church. There was no mistaking who he was.
“It’s Cassius Clay!” I blurted out to my fiancee…in what I thought was a whisper… pointing to the large man two rows in front of us.
“MUHAMMED ALI!” came the woman’s corrective voice from behind us. The young, embarrassed, white Christian seminarian thanked her, apologized, and sat quietly the rest of the afternoon.
Ali, the World Champion, had changed his name from Cassius Clay. He had joined the Nation of Islam. Ali refused military induction as a conscientious objector. His conviction would overturned by the U.S.Supreme Court. At the time he refused to step forward for induction to serve in the Viet Nam War, he asked:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”“
Father George H. Clements went on to become the first African-American in the Archdiocese of Chicago to be appointed to the position of Pastor.
As Pastor of Holy Angels, Fr. George Clements moved a statue of St. Anthony and set up an altar honoring Dr. King following Dr. King’s assassination. When the archdiocese expressed its disapproval, Fr. Clements refused to reconsider.
“Acclamatio populorum—”the people acclaim a saint,” he said. ”If the cardinal wants it down, he’ll have to take it down himself.”
The Martin Luther King, Jr. statue remained in place.
Fr. Clements would later become famous as the first priest to adopt a child. He added a new title -”Dad” – as the adoptive father of four African-American children, and founded One Church – One Child, a movement in his parish inviting African-American families to adopt homeless African-American children. The program became nation-wide and still exists today.