In October of 1954 there were very few areas of Kentucky that weren’t steeped in segregation. The signs of the Jim Crow South were everywhere; everywhere except a small gym on South Fourth Street in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. That is where the story began, as they say, when a young boy about 12 years old came in looking for a policeman. “Are you a policeman? They stole my bike” he said to the man whose back was turned to the doorway. Officer Joe Martin turned to the trembling voice in the doorway and making a gesture indicated he was in fact a police officer. The boy, through angry tears, recounted the story of how he and a friend had left their bikes outside chained to a post, but when they returned, the chain was cut and his bike was gone. It’s doubtful I can help get your bike back he told the lad, just too easy to make a clean get away with a bike. “Well if you can’t help me, I’m gonna’ find them and give them a whuppin’ myself.” Listen here, he told the young boy, before you start fighting somebody; don’t you think you should learn how? Learn how? The boy asked. Yes and I’ll be glad to show you.
Joe Martin taught boxing at the Columbia Gym. Joe was a man that didn’t see color, neither did the Columbia Gym. It was one of the few racially integrated boxing gyms of the time. As such, a lifelong friendship would develop between the half pint crime victim and the policeman that would become his coach. The crime victim was 12 year old Cassius Clay, and he and Joe would spend countless hours in the basement gym perfecting the young man’s skills as a boxer. The world might never have known Muhammad Ali had it not been for the kindness of a man that didn’t see color. Joe Martin saw an opportunity to offer guidance to a young boy when society wanted them to live in a separate world.
Sometimes history records the end result as the true story and we only get the highlights of a person’s life. The real story is there were countless, faceless heroes, that stood up and did what was right when the world wasn’t watching. Heroes like Joe Martin; a hero that took a chance in a segregated world and saw potential in a young boy because of character and not the color of his skin.