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A CASE OF CONSCIENCE
Jack Olsen
April 11, 1966
Call him Cassias Clay or Muhammad Ali, the Muslim name he prefers. He is the best-known athlete in the world. He is also the most hated, and an enigma even to those closest to him. In this first installment of a five-part series the writer probes beneath the bombast and doggerel that have characterized Clay's public life and reveals a hardheaded bigot who can be more unpleasant than his critics imagined. But underlying the demagoguery and deviltry is the conscience of a genuine objector. Conscience, in fact, is a theme that runs through Cassius Clay's life—his own, often misguided, and that of the society which spawned him
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April 11, 1966

A Case Of Conscience

Call him Cassias Clay or Muhammad Ali, the Muslim name he prefers. He is the best-known athlete in the world. He is also the most hated, and an enigma even to those closest to him. In this first installment of a five-part series the writer probes beneath the bombast and doggerel that have characterized Clay's public life and reveals a hardheaded bigot who can be more unpleasant than his critics imagined. But underlying the demagoguery and deviltry is the conscience of a genuine objector. Conscience, in fact, is a theme that runs through Cassius Clay's life—his own, often misguided, and that of the society which spawned him

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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.

"Hello, 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 Chicago Tribune 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 get-Cassius clamor.

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 race prejudice?

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