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Perhaps it is appropriate that in the month we celebrate African-American history that this week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the historic rise to prominence of one Cassius Clay, the boxer and not the abolitionist for whom he was named, the man famous worldwide as Muhammad Ali.
And there are few persons I can identify during my lifetime who did more to span the great divide between races, to bring focus and discussion to the principles that Martin Luther King had preached.
Understandably not all of you embrace Ali and his accomplishments. You may not think much of his sweet science (boxing) or his gimmick (bad poetry and bravado). You may think him more of a creator of wounds than a salve for those already there.
But I offer here the perspective of a boy of the 1960s, and I can say with some shame and much candor that the rise of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali elevated my focus on and appreciation of African-American athletes and the racial divide itself.
Before him, the stars of the day in my constellation were all mainstream white men. Ali made me root and follow and embrace the success of an African-American on the largest stage imaginable. Before I was 25 years old, he would be the most famous man on the planet.
Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of the day Ali – then Clay – knocked out big, bad, mean Sonny Liston and became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, a claim he would stake in some fashion for the next 15 years.
This does not rank in the pantheon of accomplishment of those of dislike-him-if-you-would Barack Obama or Jackie Robinson or King or other African-American pioneers of recent history, but it was significant for the focus it drew to one man who participated in a sport that then retained some timbre and who did so in a way that could not be ignored.
I recall sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table that night, listening to her old radio, perhaps the tan Silvertone. I keenly focused on the first blow-by-blow I ever had encountered and tried to understand why Liston didn’t answer the bell for the seventh round, how the new champion was this lippy young man from Louisville whose reputation had emerged from winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
I cheered that night. There was a new star.
At school the next day at Simpsonville Elementary, boys predisposed to the fates of the Bobcats, Rockets and Wildcats – and maybe a Cardinal here and there – actually talked about the heavyweight champion being from Louisville, something that had seemed preposterously unlikely when most viewed the power and ability of Liston.
We were stunned and joyous. We had something to claim and tout that was unmatched in the world, and that was what made us recognize that accomplishment was what mattered, not the color of the skin of the person doing the accomplishing.
Please recognize that we simply were children of the era. There were no kids of color in our classes. That wouldn’t happen for three more years.
We played baseball and occasionally basketball against boys of color, but we didn’t interact that much on a real level. All of us were mysteries to one another, living out images drawn and painted by the generations that preceded us and formed us.
There were no black basketball players at Shelby County or UK. Shelbyville High School and the University of Louisville brought our interaction, but we kept our loyalties divided as they had been created.
The professional teams we followed were of mixed color, with both black and Hispanic men playing starring roles. But those who admired Mickey Mantle often didn’t cotton to Willie Mays. Those who emulated Cotton Nash may not have cared about Bill Russell. If you longed to be Y.A. Tittle or Johnny Unitas, you likely only thought that Jim Brown was the bad guy.
There are no villains here other than the times and the place. As a boy – or a girl, though I hesitate to speak for girls – you simply were predisposed and not very informed. The world did not encourage us to get to know and expand our vision about people of color. We were not taught beyond the textbooks about accomplishment or hopes.
Many did not like King – or even Ali – because they espoused a new world view that was not comfortable or acceptable or embraceable. They caused people to think and respond. They brought face and focus to an issue that many viewed with fear.
So it was that Cassius Clay that night in Miami Beach, before he became Ali and a polarizing antiwar figure of the Vietnam Era, opened the eyes of a boy in Shelby County.
He allowed the boy to see the world differently and to think about it more broadly. He was not a panacea, but he was an impetus.
There would be the emergences of Westley Unseld, Scott Jones and, shudder the thought, Tom Payne to change definition of the boy’s normalcy.
He would remain a stalwart defender of the very flawed Mantle, but he grew to appreciate the gifts of Mays.
He may not have grasped the greatness of Wilt and Russell and the Big O, but he would find Dr. J and Michael Jordan to be transformative athletes of his time.
Would he have welcomed all of that if not for that fight on that night a half-century ago?
Who knows for certain, but in the rear-view mirror, that image looks mighty clear.