Muhammad Ali’s Most Important Lesson

The news of Muhammad Ali’s passing on June 3 caused me to reflect on what this giant meant to the world, and to me personally.

I’ll never forget the day Ali walked into my office in Chapel Hill’s City Hall. He had heard of my election as the first black mayor of a majority white southern city, and I suppose he had to see for himself that it was true.

I gave him the first key to the city ever presented in Chapel Hill. We laughed, we joked. I never saw him in person again, but we stayed in touch from time to time.

Ali taught us many lessons, but the most important was this: Other people, or life in general, may knock you down. But they can’t keep you down.

I learned on the internet that Ali was physically knocked down four times during his professional boxing career. He always got up.

When a fighter named Sonny Banks did it, Ali bounced back to his feet and later won the fight by knocking out Banks. Henry Cooper did it. Ali was down until the count of 3, then got to his feet and later won with a technical knockout.

Chuck Wepner also knocked down Ali (although it looks more like a stumble on the film). Wepner went almost 15 rounds with the champ, but Ali finally won with a TKO.

The mighty Joe Frazier was the last fighter to knock Ali to the canvas. As before, he bounced back up. Frazier won that first fight by a decision, but Ali won their next two meetings, including the “Thrilla in Manilla.”

Ali suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome for more than 30 years. But that didn’t prevent him from lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta.

Many of us grow up in less-than-ideal conditions. I spent my early years on a sharecropper farm in Lithonia, Georgia, without the advantages of big city schooling. I did my undergraduate studies at colleges most people haven’t heard of.

Nonetheless, I wound up being elected mayor of Chapel Hill and a state senator. I was state secretary of natural resources and community development, and later chairman of the N.C. Board of Education.

When times were tough, I refused to give up. And so can you. If someone tells you that you can’t succeed at school because you’re poor, prove them wrong. If friends tell you not to try so hard at learning because you’re making them look bad, ignore them. If teaching seems so hard that you don’t think you can last another day, take a deep breath.

And remember Ali.