Muhammad Ali's New Fight: Literacy

Muhammad Ali may have been a natural poet, but believe it or not, he hated to read. In fact, Ali was dyslexic, and barely graduated from high school, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports.

He graduated 376 out of a class of 391.

"As Muhammad said, 'I never said I was the smartest, I said I was the greatest,'" says Lonnie Ali, his wife, laughing.

But now, Lonnie and Muhammad Ali are joining another fight: improving the literacy of African Americans.

According to one national assessment, only 45 percent of black male students graduate from high school.

"It is a travesty. But I think part of the problem is that young black males don't feel enfranchised in the learning process," Lonnie says. "If you can't read, you feel left out of everything. And it's important that whatever they're reading, in the classroom, that they can relate to it."

So the Alis and Scholastic have teamed up to create "Go The Distance," a series of hand-picked books and magazines designed to educate and inspire young black readers.

"All the titles that have been selected were selected to motivate kids to read. To achieve," Lonnie explains.

Form a diary written by a child who was a slave, to a novel about a student flunking out of school, Lonnie says the stories can empower children to overcome their obstacles and follow their dreams.

"And if you motivate them, you can engage them in the act of reading. It will lead to achievement. And then it will lead to empowerment," she says.

But while the emphasis may be on reading, these kids are learning life lessons too.

"They can connect the text to their lives. They can connect these values to their lives. And hopefully, I can just become a facilitator," says teacher Anne Marie Bryant. "Less of a teacher, and more of a facilitator."

It helps having a heavyweight in your corner, and the fifth graders at Grimes Elementary School in Mt. Vernon, NY, told CBS News Muhammad Ali really knocks them out.

"I still think of him as the greatest even though he's not in the ring anymore," Rickey Freeman says.

More proof there's till some sting left in the bee.

How will the Alis know if the program has been a success?

"Well, I think if we can change the life of one child, to me, that's a success," Lonnie says. "If we caused one child to graduate from high school and go onto college, that's a success. We need to make learning alive for them. Otherwise we're going to lose them."

  • Melissa McNamara

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