The Power of Dreams… In Louisville
By Gregory Allen Howard
The Derby, Bourbon, and tobacco. That was and is Kentucky. Louisville is its biggest city, but in the forties and fifties it was just a big town. It was not the deep South. Segregated, yes, but this was no Mississippi in the forties and fifties. There were no nightriders or Klansmen pulling black men from their homes late at night and lynching them. No, this was a well-ordered society where people keep things cool by understanding the racial dynamics of the town.
If you were black, or rather colored, and stayed in your place--- both physically and psychically---then your life could be okay. The white dominating society was not going out of their way to inflict intentional suffering and anxiety on their coloreds. In the Louisville of Cassius Clay’s youth, the racism was passive.
But in the Louisville of Cassius Clay’s youth, you could get into trouble if you wandered out of your designated neighborhood and into a white neighborhood. “Nigger what are you doing over here?” This was your nice signal to leave.
The Clay family lived in the West End in a modest home. Their neighborhood could only be deemed a “ghetto” because of its homogeneity---all black. The Clays were somewhere in the middle, neither rich nor poor.
Cassius Clay, Sr., “Cash” was sign painter and religious muralist. At least that was his day job. His real job was being a character the other 16 hours a day. Jive talker (rapper without a stage); bar room singer; heavy drinker; jokester (always at someone else’s expense; a street corner Socrates; womanizer; narcissist. And most of all frustrated grand artist. Where was there room in all Cash’s personalities for a precocious 12 year old boy who himself was self absorbed? There wasn’t much room.
Cassius Jr. was much closer to his mother, Odessa, “Bird.” She was his rock. After discovering boxing, it was his mother whom he confided to, “I’m gonna be champion of the world.” He shared his dreams of greatness with her. And she encouraged him.
Cash put food on the table and roof overhead, but he was never interested in Cassius’s nascent boxing career. You see, Louisville, or rather white Louisville was the villain in a play that kept Cash from being exposed as a world class muralist. Cash wanted a white commission to paint a mural for the city, or state, or corporation. He never got it.
The first Clay to utter, “I’m the greatest,” was not the son, but the father. And he believed it too. I could be the greatest muralist ever, but they won’t give me a commission. And he was good if not the greatest. His religious murals in black Louisville churches were acknowledged to be incredible and deeply emotional.
Cash’s dreams of greatness were, because of the time and place, continually frustrated. So why should he care that his son had found his calling at 12. Look at my work. That crucifixion scene would make a stone weep.
Cassius became obsessed with boxing and training. Consumed by it. He would race the school bus for 20 blocks. When he’s walk a girl home in high school, he run (doubling back and forth) while she walked. He called this, “running you home.” Look at me.
Cash would be up on his ladder painting a sign dreaming of being on his back painting the Sistine Chapel. Or a great portrait… If I painted the Mona Lisa, I’d jazz it up. Then they’d bow down. Then they’d take note. I could be the greatest.
In high school, Cassius would put garlic in a bottle of water and sip from it all day. He felt it gave him strength. He eschewed pork, soda pop, cigarettes, alcohol, late night partying, and sex. He was a boxing monk.
He would not become frustrated by his dream like Cash. He would see his dream. Make it happen. Boxing. Training obsessively. Golden Gloves matches one after another. And all the time he was seeking the attention that he did not get from Cash. Watch me, look at me, I’m gonna be great.
During Cassius’s amateur boxing ascendancy, Cash was not present. 106 amateur bouts and Cash didn’t attend one. Your dream? What about my dream? Who could know in Louisville in the fifties that boxing could transport a man somewhere significant?
Boxing in the fifties was not the thing it is now. 5000. That was the live gate for Clay-Liston championship. The Miami Beach auditorium was empty. 5000 paid to see a championship heavyweight match. And that was with Cassius promoting the hell out of it. Pay-per-view, million dollar purses, entourages, commercial endorsements, boxing as mass entertainment. In those days all that was a dream.
In the forties and fifties, boxing was dead. Killed by a poisonous mob fog of fixes, dives, set-ups, tankers, and tomato cans. It was ugly in and out of the ring. Pro boxing had become a big nothing in a little corner of the American sports psyche. People filled stadiums to see football and baseball. Who cared about boxing? Why dream about that?
Cash taught his sons to paint--- lay out a sign, do the lettering. Keep at it and maybe one day, you can do what I do. Sign painting. That was profession. $25 and a chicken dinner. Nothing wrong with that. You won’t get your feelings hurt by sign painting… unless you’re a greatest uncommissioned artist in the world.
But Cassius would have none of it. Train. Think. Study (not school, boxing). Run to school in steel toed boots. CLICK CLACKING on the pavement. Drink garlic water. Spar. Shadow box. Speed bag. Jump rope.
And hey, Angelo Dundee’s in town with his heavyweight. I’ll show up at his hotel room! Mr. Dundy! I’m Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior. I’m a Golden Gloves champ and one day I’ll be heavyweight champeeen! What does your heavyweight eat? How many miles does he run a day? How many sit ups? What…? Why…? Who…? When…?
At night, Cassius used to have real dreams. Crazy dreams. Like flying off buildings. Saving the world. One dream in particular was re-occurring: A little man put a crown on his head and made him king. “King of what?” Bird asked… Long pause. “King of the world!”
While one Louisville dreamer was boxing his way to his coronation in 106 amateur matches; the other was in a bar, singing “My Way” in a rich baritone voice imagining himself on his back jazzing up the Sistine Chapel.
And so it went for the six years of Cassius’s amateur life in Louisville. From the 12 to 18, Cassius worked only briefly… once… in the Library. The rest of the time he was boxing.
As Cassius was climbing, Cash finally realized that his grand dream of being a great artist was crashing around himself. He knew, at a point, it would never happen. There would be no Cassius Clay murals in the Louvre or even in Louisville—outside of a black church. And when dreams go down, they take dreamer down with them. Cash’s frustration metastasized into bitterness.
Cassius went on to Rome in the 1960 Olympics and won Gold as a light heavyweight. He was 18 and ready to turn pro. He was returned to Louisville a celebrity. Now Cash was there to share the dream when the dream was reality.
As Cash loved to say after Cassius won Gold at the Olympics and later when he won it all, “I am the father of the champion… Most work he ever did was eatin’ and sleepin’.” For once he was not exaggerating.
After his boy won Gold, Cash was ready to repay Louisville for the disrespect, for pissing on his dream. Cash kicked out the cop who brought Cassius in to boxing. Cash took his boy to the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a collection of some of the richest and most prominent white men not just in Louisville, but in Kentucky.
Louisville was still segregated in 1960 and most of the white establishments wouldn’t serve colored, but these powerful white men wanted a piece of this black property. They wanted to back young Cassius. And they had to go through bantam weight dreamer to get to his son. Now, you will give me the respect that I deserve that I have always deserved.
Cash enjoyed his moment in the spotlight as father of the champion. But it was to be short-lived. Within two years of the Olympics, Cassius had moved to Miami to train under Angelo Dundee and once there he started attending a Miami Mosque.
Cassius fell under the sway of other older black men, who paid attention to him, who encouraged his dream. Black Muslims. The first was Cap’n Sam. The second was Malcolm X. Then Elijah Muhammad. Then Herbert Muhammad. Elijah even named him. Isn’t that what a father does?
Cash lost his primacy in Cassius’s soon to become Muhammad Ali’s life. He attended the matches, but was always on the outside looking in; just as he had been before when young Cassius was reaching for his dream CLICK CLACKING on the streets of Louisville.
Louisville integrated in the late sixties and early seventies. It was, for the most part a peaceful integration. It was not the deep South. No Bull Conner, no water hoses, dogs, murders. People in Louisville were civilized as you can be when it comes to the business opening the door… after a 300 year wait.
Young Cassius became Muhammad Ali. The black folks of Louisville took a great deal of pride in his being champion. They and the rest of Louisville did not like his refusal to serve (Louisville has a long military history). The city of Louisville supported the war in Vietnam until the bitter end.
Despite the pro war feelings of the populace, by the mid-seventies, with the end of the war, all was forgiven, and the city once again claimed its son, now Muhammad Ali.
Ali and Cash reconciled. Ali brought him to his training camp at Deer Lake in the early seventies. Cash painted the names of a former champs on the huge boulders jutting up around the camp grounds.
Despite all that happened between them, Cash was a part of him. Listen to the words of Muhammad Ali after the first Ali-Frazier, “Did you see my artistry tonight?”
Unconsciously or perhaps consciously, Ali fulfilled his father’s dream: He brought his art to the ring. And on sweat-stained canvases in far away places, Ali created the greatest masterpieces the world has ever known.