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GROWING UP SCARED IN LOUISVILLE
Jack Olsen
April 18, 1966
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a man-child as prejudiced as the stiff-necked bigots he professes to detest, was unusual almost from the day he was born. Sensitive, troubled and inquisitive, he was dominated by a father who was a miniature volcano. But he was also influenced by a clan of hardworking, talented relatives
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April 18, 1966

Growing Up Scared In Louisville

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., a man-child as prejudiced as the stiff-necked bigots he professes to detest, was unusual almost from the day he was born. Sensitive, troubled and inquisitive, he was dominated by a father who was a miniature volcano. But he was also influenced by a clan of hardworking, talented relatives

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"He was always a talker. He tried to talk so hard when he was a baby. He used to jabber so, you know? And people'd laugh and he'd shake his face and jabber so fast? I don't see how anybody could talk so fast, just like lightning. And he never sat still. He was in the bed with me at 6 months old and you know how babies stretch? And he had little muskle arms and he hit me in the mouth when he stretched and it loosened my front tooth and it affected my other front tooth and I had to have both of 'em pulled out. So I always say his first knockout punch was in my mouth.

"He had so much strength he'd stand up in his baby bed and shake it, and one morning he stood up and said to me, 'Gee Gee,' and that's what we all call him now. And later on in life he said he was trying to tell me 'Gee Gee' for ' Golden Gloves.'

"When he and Rudy did little mischievous things I'd tell his father and he'd say, 'Get in the bathroom!' Cassius Jr. would always go in first and get his spanking and go right back out and do something else. He's something! I'm telling you! And love to eat?" She paused to laugh. "And one day his uncle took him out and a little boy was sitting in a chair and you know what Cassius did? He walked up to the little boy and knocked him out of the chair and he got in it and sat. He was a very unusual child.

"The neighbors used to call him and Rudy 'the gang-wreckin' crew' 'cause they'd go to visit his grandmother and run through every room in the house. They would run instead of walking. One day when Cassius was a little boy he chopped down our plum tree. Of all the trees it had to be that one. Made his daddy so mad! And he was always trying to frighten us. He would tie a string onto our bedroom curtain and run it to his room and pull it to make it move after we went to bed. And he'd put white sheets over his head and jump out at you in the dark. And he never was sick a day in his life, except when he had measles and chickenpox at the same time. Ever hear of a child having both at the same time?"

Cassius Clay Jr. is less likely to carry on about the minutiae of his childhood, being more concerned with the sublime events of his later years. But, when he does start reminiscing, his memories often tend to have a black thread of discomfort and pain running through them.

"We got into the house and the first thing I did was to run through the house and into the backyard," he said one day, trying to dredge up his earliest memory, "and there was an apple tree there and I climbed up and my mother told me to get down, and I pulled a green apple off of it and started eating it, and my mother told me, 'You'll get the flux!' Some kinda disease you get. Some people die from it. Wait a minute! I may go back farther than that.

"I remember when we lived right across the street from Churchill Downs on the corner of the alley. There was a little white girl named Judy used to live down the street from us. and we used to run up and down the alley and play all the time. Used to be a boy named Rudolph we used to be scared of. Every Derby Day we would look out the window, and he would be parking people's cars. And there was another boy named Gunny, walked with his head in the air all the time. We afraid of him, too."

Clay's childhood memories tend toward the negative, with overtones of violence: boys who frightened him, foods that were poisonous, rock fights that were dangerous. But there is another source of violence that he never brings into the open: the violence in his home.

"I don't know whether you can understand it, being a white yo'self," said a very old friend of the Clays, "but there's more apt to be a violent strain in a smart Negro family than there is in a dumb one. Dumb Negroes go their way like animals, just like dumb whites. Don't know whether the rain fallin' or the sun shinin'. Don't care. But the smart Negro could feel the pain of what was happenin' around him, and at the same time there wasn't a thing he could do about it, 'cept he could make it worse. So all this pain he kept bottled up inside, and he became quietly violent, and sometimes this passed on down to the kids. And every once in a while somebody'd shake the whole soda bottle and it'd explode right out in the open."

Violence in the Clay line seems to have exploded first in the case of the fighter's uncle, Everett, a mysterious figure whose demise appears to have come about in as many different ways as there are Clays to tell the story. Says Mary Clay Turner: "Everett Clay. Everett the poet. He was very poetic, the most intelligent member of the family. He worked problems at Indiana University that no one else could, unsolvable problems." How did he die? "Everett just died. Very young, around 30. Everett worried too much. He had a nervous stomach."

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