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Young Cassius Clay
William Nack
January 13, 1992
At 50, Muhammad Ali is a much-admired figure, just as he was in his formative years as a fun-loving but purposeful youth in Louisville
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January 13, 1992

Young Cassius Clay

At 50, Muhammad Ali is a much-admired figure, just as he was in his formative years as a fun-loving but purposeful youth in Louisville

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The boys pushed too far. "Cassius finally went after one of them," Brown says. "He floored him. A right hand. To the jaw. Cassius almost cried. I could tell by his voice. But that was the end of that. They never bothered him again."

He avoided all confrontations, including the civil rights demonstrations downtown in which blacks were involved during the late 1950s. Clay was born in a town where most of the public facilities were segregated. Until the barriers started coming down in the '50s, Chickasaw was the only park that blacks could use, and most of the libraries, restaurants and movie theaters were for whites only. Central was the all-black high school. When Clay was at Central, one of the teachers, Lyman Johnson, regularly led students on picket lines and lunch-counter sit-ins. Clay never participated, says Yates Thomas, except the one time that Thomas talked him into joining him on a picket line at a downtown restaurant.

Clay was standing on the sidewalk, says Thomas, when an eighth-floor window opened and a white woman emptied a bucket of water on the marchers below. "She emptied it right on his head," says Thomas. "She got him exactly. Water spilled all over him. He was just standing there."

That ended his career as an activist in Louisville. "He said he would never demonstrate again," says Thomas. "He never did." For years it was believed that Clay's activism began for real upon his return from the Olympics, when a Louisville restaurant refused to serve him and a white motorcycle gang threatened him. According to long-accepted Ali lore, Clay threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. In fact, says Hauser, "he lost it." And while Clay was turned away from restaurants on many occasions, the biker incident never happened.

His life had become so consumed by the rigors of boxing—aside from all the roadwork, he trained in two gyms, with both Martin and Stoner—it was something of a wonder that he made it through Central at all. But in his junior and senior years, Clay had as his ally the most powerful man at Central, the principal. Atwood Wilson adored the young man. At assemblies Wilson would embrace him onstage and announce, "Here he is, ladies and gentlemen: Cassius Clay! The next heavyweight champion of the world. This guy is going to make a million dollars!"

Academically Clay paddled in the doldrums—he ended up ranked 376th in a class of 391 students—but his failure at scholarship did not trouble the principal with the master's degree in education from the University of Chicago. What Wilson admired most of all was excellence, says Bettie Johnson, a counselor at Central, and no one at the school excelled at his job in life more than young Clay did. So the grades be damned. Clint Lovely, a Central student at the time, recalls Wilson saying, "Cassius doesn't need to know anything but how to fill out his income tax. And I'm gonna teach him that."

With graduation drawing near, there was a powerful sentiment among some teachers not to permit Clay to graduate because, says Johnson, he wasn't going to pass English. Thelma Lauderdale required a term paper from her English students, and Clay had not done his. "He wanted to do it on the Black Muslims," recalls Johnson, "and the teacher did not feel that was acceptable. The subject was controversial at the time. You have to understand what was going on in black thinking prior to the militancy of the sixties. Black Muslims were considered by blacks as very, very questionable people. Cassius was not a militant, outspoken guy. He always had this mischievous twinkle in his eye, like he had a private joke he was telling himself. He just had this interest in the Muslims."

Before a faculty meeting in the music room, Wilson rose and delivered his Claim to Fame speech: "One day our greatest claim to fame is going to be that we knew Cassius Clay, or taught him." At this point, says the former school librarian, Minnie Alta Broaddus, "I thought, Maybe he knows something I don't know."

Wilson argued that Clay had a unique set of gifts, that he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world and that he should not be held to the rules governing the average student. No one in the room was more of a scholar than the eloquent Wilson—he was ruthless with any teacher he perceived as mediocre—but here he argued that Clay was so exceptional that he should not be denied a diploma simply because he could not parse a sentence or quote from Macbeth. "The coaches all thought it was great because they were always trying to play guys who were ineligible scholastically," says Johnson. "The academic people were outraged because they thought we were letting our standards down."

Wilson was unmoved. "Do you think I'm going to be the principal of a school that Cassius Clay didn't finish?" he said. "Why, in one night, he'll make more money than the principal and all you teachers make in one year. If every teacher here fails him, he's still not going to fail. He's not going to fail in my school. I'm going to say, I taught him!"

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