Clay gave Khalilah an autographed photo. She remembers telling him: "Your name is Cassius Clay? Like mud? Like dirt?" She tore up the picture. "Brother, come back when you get a real name. Then we can talk."
The story sounds like a tale concocted by an imaginative child, but Khalilah insists it happened. Her childhood friends Wali and Halimah Muhammad, two of Elijah's grandchildren, cannot confirm or deny Khalilah's account, but they acknowledge Ali was among dozens of famous people who would meet with Elijah Muhammad whenever they came to Chicago. Others included Martin Luther King Jr., singer James Brown, jazz musician Miles Davis, and the Jackson Five. "When my grandparents had special events and dinners at the house, Khalilah would come help us," Halimah says. "She played host or would help serve the table. She would do whatever she could."
Khalilah and her siblings were like part of Elijah Muhammad's family, according to Halimah, who was 4 years old when she met Ali's sweetheart. "Khalilah always had a great imagination and sense of humor," Halimah says. "She was always good at making things up. She always had some outlandish fable to tell us."
Halimah's brother Wali agrees. "She would make a great writer," he says. "She'd get us to believe she was telling the truth."
A tomboy who loved playing cowboys and Indians and going to rodeos, Khalilah once told Halimah that she could see giant invisible animals that would tell her things. Halimah attests: "They were quite believable stories."
It was the late spring of 1964 when a tomato-red Cadillac El Dorado pulled up to 3117 S. Wentworth Ave., a building that housed the Nation of Islam's grocery store, restaurant, and bakery, where Khalilah and four other counter girls served the organization's signature bean pies, among other health-conscious baked goods. The champ, who had already joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, slid out of the white leather driver's seat. He was accompanied by 17-year-old Wali Muhammad, who had developed a brotherly bond with the 23-year-old Ali.
On the way over, the champ wanted to know about one of the counter girls. "He was giving me the third degree," Wali says. "What was her name, where her daddy and her mama lived. He took a real liking to her." Wali instantly knew whom the champ was talking about. He led Ali into the bakery, where 14-year-old Khalilah was behind the counter. "I introduced him to her," Wali says. "He took over from there, going into his whole spiel. I remember she was almost as tall as him."
When Ali left the bakery, Khalilah imitated the champ. "She was talking and acting just like him," Wali says. "We were all like, 'Dang, girl, you sound just like Muhammad Ali.' After that, he would wait for her to get off from work so he could drive her home."
Wali's sister Halimah remembers Khalilah "had an eye" for him as well. "She would tell my grandmother that she wanted to marry Ali," Halimah says. "She would ask her to pray for that to happen." Of course, Halimah adds, she thought it was just a teenaged girl's wishful fantasy. After all, the champ was married, and Khalilah was a minor.
But in 1966, shortly after Ali divorced his first wife, the champ began his search for a good, obedient Muslim bride. Whenever he visited Chicago, he could not stop gushing about Khalilah, who had blossomed into a statuesque, 16-year-old 11th-grader. "She definitely caught his eye," Wali says. On a night Wali and Khalilah went out on a date, Ali waited for her at her parents' house. After Wali dropped Khalilah off at home, Ali made his move.
"He was sitting in my living room when I got home," Khalilah says. "I asked my daddy: 'Why is Cassius Clay here?' "
He was there to ask her parents for permission to marry her. At the time, Ali had lost his license to box and world title because of his refusal to enter the Vietnam War draft. "My dad asked him how he was going to take care of me," Khalilah says. "He told my dad that eventually he would get his job back."
The champ won over her parents, and in August 1967, he married Khalilah. The ceremony was held in the living room of a two-bedroom house Ali had received as a wedding gift from Elijah's son, Herbert Muhammad. The service was performed by a Baptist minister because the Nation of Islam did not have an official wedding ritual.