It is one of
those houses that always seem stuffy, where the warm smell of dinner hangs
around till the next morning, and you can reconstruct the previous night's menu
by spilling in corners. In this house there is the constant presence of
Negroes, of too many humans for the size of the place, whatever their color.
They drift in and out: celebrity Negroes, little pickaninny Negroes, big
sparring-partner Negroes, door-to-door salesman Negroes, neatly dressed Muslim
Negroes, old Negroes in skinny yellow shoes, young Negroes in porkpie hats,
affluent Negroes driving black Cadillacs. In this house, kept neat and tidy by
three uniformed Muslim "sisters," there remains something of the
atmosphere of a "colored only" waiting room on the main line of the
Florida East Coast Railway.
In a tiny front
bedroom of the small bungalow in a shabby section of northwest Miami, the
world's heavyweight champion lay half awake, undergoing an interview about his
early life, trying not to tell too much, partially because there are portions
that are painful to him and partially because he is under the impression that
his "whole life story, as told by me myself," is a precious commodity
worth a minimum of $50,000. The telephone rang on the cluttered dresser next to
the bed, and Cassius Clay, in his role as Muhammad Ali, picked it up and said a
dignified "hello." The caller was a local television personality, a man
who could generate publicity; so the champ loosened up.
Mis-ter Ed Lane," he said cheerfully. This is one of Clay's trademarks:
calling white men by both their names. He likes to spot you approaching, and
when you come into range he beams and throws out with mock pomposity and
careful syllabilization: "Ange-lo Dun-dee!" "Gor-don
Da-vid-son!" "Gil-bert Ro-gin!" That is, if he remembers your name.
It takes many exposures to a white man before his name sinks into the
consciousness of Cassius Clay. This is because he has erected a sort of racial
curtain that screens whites out of his emotional life. A white man's name is of
no importance to him, nor are "whiteys" themselves, except insofar as
they can further his career.
Mr. Ed ("Mark
'Em Down") Lane, who until his recent death conducted conversational
television interviews on a Miami station, fell in this latter category.
"How you feeling?" Cassius asked. Lane remarked that the champion's
name was all over the newspapers again that morning, whereupon Cassius began
one of his Greek-chorus speeches, a mock lament that sounded as though it had
been written the night before, rehearsed for several hours and saved for just
such an auspicious occasion as a telephone call from Lane.
"I stay in
the paper, don't I?" Cassius said softly into the phone. "Poor old me.
Always in the press. Man, man! What do people think about me? A young
24-year-old boy, just a athlete, in the headlines eight times out of 10 for
something other than boxing and always something controversial, exciting and
drama. Year in, year out. Month after month, never dies, and I manage to come
through it strong, and trained, too. What do people think about me?"
Seldom in the
long history of rhetorical questions has one been answered so quickly and
thoroughly. Within a few days Cassius had popped off about the draft, and
newspaper editorial writers and columnists and statesmen and Bowery bums were
telling the world heavyweight champion what they thought about him in some of
the strongest language ever used to describe a sports figure. He was "a
self-centered spoiled brat of a child," "a sad apology for a man,"
"the all-time jerk of the boxing world," "the most disgusting
character in memory to appear on the sports scene." "Bum of the month.
Bum of the year. Bum of all time."
The governor of
Illinois found Clay "disgusting." and the governor of Maine said Clay
"should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American." An
American Legion post in Miami asked people to "join in condemnation of this
unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic individual," and dirty mail began to
arrive at Clay's Miami address. ("You're nothing but a yellow nigger."
said a typical correspondent, one of many who forgot to sign their names.) The
waged a choleric campaign against holding the next Clay tight
in Chicago; the newspaper's attitude seemed to be that thousands of
impressionable young Chicagoans would go over to the Viet Cong if Cassius were
allowed to engage in fisticuffs in that sensitive city.
Amplified by the
newspaper (on one day it ran 11 items about Clay), the noise became a din, the
drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies from
Champaign-Urbana, bookmakers and parish priests, armchair strategists at the
Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of
There were a few
amateur psychologists who wondered if there might have been more to the public
uproar than simple patriotism. "Doesn't it seem that people got madder than
they should have?" an observer asked. "The thing is, Americans have
become so guilty about Negroes that they bend over further than they want to in
their attitude toward them. Then along comes somebody like Cassius, and they
feel free to unload their resentment and pour it on."
Did he mean that
some of the complainants might have been motivated by some factor as evil as