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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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In another corner, lined up against the wall, were several of Cassius Sr.'s oil paintings: rural scenes of a flashy quality, one showing metallic red glows in the clouds and purplish snow over the land, another of a red barn, an old carriage waiting outside and a carriage wheel propped against the wall. He plugged in two motorized spotlights with revolving colored lenses—orange, red, blue, green—and allowed the artificial color to splash over his paintings.

"Sumpin', isn't it?" he said proudly. "Now it's sunset, about 5:30 in the evening." The disc turned. "Now it's nighttime. Now watch! The sun's coming up. Wait a minute now. It's the middle of the day!" He said he likes to come into the basement, pull up a chair and study the effects of the colored wheel on his paintings. "When I put on my exhibition downtown, I'm gonna use these lights," he said. " 'Course, I still have some more paintings to do for my one-man show. I'm gonna paint the Mona Lisa, bring it out a little, highlight it. make her stand out...." It was all reminiscent of Dali's Mona Lisa with Moustache, with op art overtones.

"Some of my best work can't be shown," the father went on proudly. "My murals are in every new church in Louisville. They're beautiful, aren't they, Peaches?" Mrs. Clay said they were beautiful. "Now in Cunningham's church I have five scenes," he rushed on. "The Conception, The Birth, The Baptism, The Crucifixion and Jesus Knocks at Your Door. That's your heart, the door is your heart."

Back upstairs, Mrs. Clay tried to steer the conversation to the subject of her son. "Do you remember how he used to chase chickens?" she said.

"He used to chase my chickens," the father said. "I used to have 500 chickens. You know what I can do? I can raise 90 chickens out of 100. That's sumpin', ain't it? A farmer asked me to explain how I did that. I said, 'That's my secret!' " He sat straight up, a little peacock, and accepted the group's admiration modestly. But a few minutes later he became enraged, momentarily, when someone said that his son was talking about writing an autobiography under his Muslim name, Muhammad Ali.

"I understand the whole thing!" the father said, rushing about the room snorting and sniffing angrily. "I dig now! I dig now! What they're trying to do is erase that name out. Cassius Clay . That name's gonna be pushed! That name shall not die! Now look! You and I're gonna write a book, too. It's gonna be on Cassius Clay Jr. It'll be called"—his voice lowered to a dramatic whisper—"A Boxer Was Born."

"Now remember this," he went on, back in high gear. "In anything you write about me, do not mention Elijah Muhammad's name. You know why? Every knock is a boost. He wants advertisements. I'm not advertising Muhammad. If Cassius tells you anything about Muhammad, just take it in your head, but don't write it! Don't help Muhammad in no kind of way. It'll make him mad if you don't write about him!"

"Little Cassius was in Louisville for Christmas," Mrs. Clay said at her earliest opportunity to break in. "Him and Stepin Fetchit, they stayed at the Sheraton downtown. Cassius and Rudolph have a nice room here, but he stayed downtown. Cassius's in town right now. With Joe Louis. He came out to visit us, but he only stayed 25 minutes, kept a cab waiting outside in the driveway. He hasn't been back since. He's been told to stay away from his father because of the religious thing, and I imagine they've told him to stay away from me, too. Muslims don't like me because I'm too fair-complected."

"They keep him away from me," the father said. "They know I could bring him right back to the church. They tell him he can't stay around his parents."

The phone rang, and Senior took the call. "Hello?" he said, and, "Just a minute." He ran into the living room excitedly and told Odessa sotto voce, "It's Cassius!" She took the phone and spoke to her son with consummate tenderness, addressing him softly as "Baby," while the father whispered to his guests, "That's Cassius now." Odessa hung up, and Senior asked what their son had said. "He's on his way to visit Coretta," she said. "They're making hamburgers. He says he's very happy, very happy."

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