The Baby Figure of the Giant Mass: Mike Marqusee on Ali vs. Liston and its Prehistory

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Muhammad Ali died earlier this month on 3rd June, aged 74. In tribute to his fearless courage, in the ring and in politics, we publish this adapted excerpt from Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties by Mike Marqusee


(Muhammad Ali at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. This against-the-odds victory was one of the shocking upheavals characteristic of the era, a surprise that compelled people to reconsider their assumptions. The triumph of the underdog, and with it the confounding of bookmakers and experts, is one of the most visceral thrills sports have to offer; it brings with it a combined sense of disorientation and unsuspected possibility, feelings which were to be intensified by Clay’s actions outside the ring in the days that followed.

After the fight, Clay chose to forgo the usual festivities at one of Miami’s luxury hotels and headed instead for the black ghetto, where he had made camp during training. He spent a quiet evening in private conversation with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke and Jim Brown, the great Cleveland Browns running back and an early champion of black rights in sports. The next morning, after breakfast with Malcolm, Clay met the press to confirm the rumors that he was involved with the Nation of Islam:

I believe in Allah and in peace. I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. I was baptized when I was twelve, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a Christian any more. I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.


“I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” No boxing champion, and no black sports star, had ever issued such a ringing declaration of independence. The next day, Clay amplified his views. In place of his usual ingratiating bravado, there was now a steely and even exultant defiance:

Black Muslims is a press word. The real name is Islam. That means peace. Islam is a religion and there are seven hundred and fifty million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them. I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and don’t find the killers.... I’m the heavyweight champion, but right now there are some neighborhoods I can’t move into. I know how to dodge boobytraps and dogs. I dodge them by staying in my own neighborhood. I’m no trouble-maker ... I’m a good boy. I never have done anything wrong. I have never been to jail. I have never been in court. I don’t join any integration marches. I don’t pay any attention to all those white women who wink at me. I don’t carry signs. . . . A rooster crows only when it sees the light. Put him in the dark and he’ll never crow. I have seen the light and I’m crowing.

Reactions to Clay’s announcement were swift and hostile. The southern-dominated World Boxing Association (WBA) began moves to strip him of his title. His record album, I Am the Greatest, was pulled from the shelves by Columbia. A scheduled appearance on the Jack Parr television talk show was canceled. Endorsement deals evaporated. Senators threatened to mount an investigation into the legality of the Liston fight. The syndicate of Louisville millionaires who sponsored Clay described him as “ungrateful.” With a fine disregard for history, Jimmy Cannon, the doyen of boxing writers, declared that boxing had never before “been turned into an instrument of mass hate. . . . Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness.” Harry Markson, the head of Madison Square Garden, warned Clay, “You don’t use the heavyweight championship of the world to spout religious diatribe. We’ve made so much progress in eliminating color barriers that it’s a pity we’re now facing such a problem.”

Joe Louis joined in the condemnation: “Clay will earn the public’s hatred because of his connections with the Black Muslims. The things they preach are the opposite of what we believe.” NAACP leader Roy Wilkins echoed the sentiment: “Cassius may not know it, but he is now an honorary member of the White Citizens’ Councils. . . . He speaks their piece better than they do.” Floyd Patterson told the press he would fight Ali for free “just to get the title away from the Black Muslims.”

Other black voices struck a more realistic balance. “Considering the associations and activities of other prizefighters I have known,” observed George Schuyler, a conservative columnist, “Cassius Marcellus Clay is picking good company.” Jackie Robinson insisted, “Clay has as much right to ally himself with the Muslim religion as anyone else has to be a Protestant or a Catholic.” Despite his sometimes “crude” behavior, Clay, Robinson believed, had “spread the message that more of us need to know: ‘I am the Greatest,’ he says. I am not advocating that Negroes think they are greater than anyone else. But I want them to know they are just as great as other human beings.” And a younger man, Leroi Jones, saw even greater possibilities in the new champ: “Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene. And in this last sense Clay is definitely my man.”

Cassius Clay’s conversion to the Nation of Islam set him on a path to uncharted lands, and transformed him in the eyes of both black and white. As a young challenger he had been brash and bold, an entertaining eccentric; within hours of winning the championship he had metamorphosed into an alien menace. He dared to turn his back on America, Christianity and the white race. Many black men had been lynched for less. The governors of American sports stood appalled as Clay brought the anarchy of political controversy into their orderly realm. Boxing fans were bemused. And in the black communities, while there was much dismay over Clay’s rejection of the civil rights movement, there was also, among many, a mood of pleasant surprise. Whatever else it may have been, Clay’s conversion to the Nation of Islam was recognized as an embrace of blackness; in willingly subjecting himself to the vilification that had been the lot of the Nation of Islam for years, he had placed his black constituency on a higher footing than the white audience to whom black performers were normally beholden, and this in itself earned him legions of black admirers.

“I’m free to be what I want.” It’s often said that at this moment Muhammad Ali “invented himself.” Through sheer charisma he brought the old stereotypes tumbling down like a black Samson in the temple of the Philistines. But he did not invent himself out of nothing. In his search for personal freedom he was propelled and guided by a wide array of interacting social forces. Ali’s public conversion was one of the unexpected jolts that peppered the decade, opening dizzying vistas of both fear and hope. But as with all such moments, its significance can only be discovered by diving into the river of historical experience which flows into and out from it.

• • •

When Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, defeating Irishman Tommy Burns in front of a crowd of 30,000 in Sydney, a hue and cry went up from white America. Jack London asked when a “Great White Hope” would emerge to reclaim the title. The former champion, Jim Jeffries, who had previously refused to fight black boxers, came out of retirement, vowing to put the black man back in his place. His clash with Johnson drew unprecedented public attention, in America and abroad, and many on both sides of the racial divide were disturbed by its symbolic resonance. “If the black man wins,” argued the New York Times, “thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.” Followers of Booker T. Washington, who deplored Johnson’s “boastfulness,” warned that “any undue exhibitions of rejoicing on the part of Negroes” should Johnson win would lead to violence by whites. Both whites and blacks saw in Jack Johnson “the baby figure of the giant mass / Of things to come at large” and reacted accordingly, in fear or in hope.

In Reno on the fourth of July 1910, before an overwhelmingly white audience and reporters from around the world, Johnson dominated Jeffries with ease and knocked him out in the fifteenth round. As the news traveled, celebrations broke out in black communities across America; white gangs launched reprisal attacks in the worst racial violence of the decade.

Johnson was the white man’s nightmare come alive. Not only did he beat up white heroes in the ring (sporting his trademark grin), he dallied with white women out of the ring and made no secret of it. It seemed that by brute force he had upturned all the conventions of race and gender which governed America. Hated and hounded by the white press, he was ultimately forced into exile to escape a conviction trumped up by the federal government under the Mann Act, which prohibited the transport of women across State lines for “immoral purposes.”

Johnson was the most famous black person in America in these years. The wealth, glamor and pretension which the white press ridiculed and deplored exerted a powerful appeal to many blacks. For the most part, the black press celebrated Johnson’s achievements; indeed, his fame helped create a new market for black newspapers in the nascent urban black communities. However, his antics made the tiny black middle class uneasy. Washington believed that Johnson had only himself to blame for his troubles with the press and the government, and feared that black people as a whole would bear the consequences of his irresponsible behavior. “It shows the folly of those persons who think they alone will be held responsible for the evil they do.” To Washington, Johnson was a wholly unsuitable representative of his people: “A man with muscle minus brains is a useless creature.” In fact, Johnson’s boxing style was clinically sophisticated; he was one of the first masters of scientific, and therefore largely defensive, ringcraft. And he was quite capable of speaking for himself, even if what he said upset others. “White people often point to the writings of Booker T. Washington as the best example of the desirable attitude on the part of the colored population,” Johnson noted in his autobiography. “I have never been able to agree with the point of view of Washington.” He preferred Frederic Douglass, he said, because “he faced the issues without compromising.”

In response to the publicity surrounding Johnson’s marriage to a white woman, anti-miscegenation bills flooded state legislatures. W.E.B. Du Bois observed that this was one issue on which black and white appeared to be “in complete agreement.” Behind this consensus, Du Bois saw the hypocrisy of an America perversely divided—and united—by the color line. “Let those people who have yelled themselves purple in the face over Jack Johnson just sit down and ask themselves this question: Granted that Johnson and Miss Cameron proposed to live together, was it better for them to be legally married or not? We know what the answer in the Bourbon South is. We know that they would rather uproot the foundations of decent society than to call the consorts of their brothers, sons and fathers their legal wives. We infinitely prefer the methods of Jack Johnson to those of Governor Mann of Virginia.”

Du Bois was one of Johnson’s few prominent defenders, not because he admired the boxer, but because he was alive to the grotesque double standard that informed the criticism of him. He accepted that “there is still today some brutality connected with boxing,” but wryly noted that “certainly it is a highly civilized pastime as compared with the international game of war which produces so many ‘heroes’ and national monuments.” He ridiculed “publications like the New York Times,” which “roll their eyes in shivery horror” every time Johnson defeated a white man. “Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black. Of course, some pretend to object to Mr. Johnson’s character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of white America, that marital troubles have disqualified prizefighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness.” To Du Bois, Johnson was representative in so far as he was a black victim of white racism.

Johnson based his own defense on his rights as an individual, not a representative. “I want to say I am not a slave and that I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man,” he insisted. “I have eyes and I have a heart, and when they fail to tell me who I shall have for mine, I want to be put away in a lunatic asylum.” In 1915, weary and demoralized after years of exile, Johnson fought the latest white hope, Jess Willard, in Havana, where he was counted out in the twenty-seventh round. In his autobiography, Johnson claims he deliberately gave up the title because he had been led to believe it would ease his return to America. In the end, he returned five years later and served a year in prison.

Looking back on the sensational career of the first black heavyweight champion, the writer James Weldon Johnson lamented the boxer’s lack of “culture” and compared him unfavorably to his predecessor, the legendary Peter Jackson, “whose chivalry in the ring was so great that sports writers down to today apply to him the doubtful compliment, ‘a white colored man.’” Yet Weldon Johnson also recalled that “Frederick Douglass had a picture of Peter Jackson in his study, and he used to point to it and say, ‘Peter is doing a great deal with his fists to solve the Negro question.’ I think Jack, even after the reckoning of his big and little failings has been made, may be said to have done his share.”

No black fighter was given a shot at the heavyweight title for twenty-two years after Johnson lost it. Throughout the twenties, Jack Dempsey refused to meet black challengers, yet hardly a sportswriter in the country thought this compromised the credibility of his claim to be “world champion.” When Joe Louis emerged in the early thirties, his handlers were determined to learn from Johnson’s bitter experience. Louis was given lessons in table manners and elocution; he was told to go for a knockout rather than risk the whims of racist judges; he was told never to smile when he beat a white man and, above all, never to be caught alone with a white woman.

Louis was groomed as a role model for black America, inoffensive but dignified, respectful and respected. The symbolic burdens that this would involve became apparent in his first fight in New York City, against Primo Carnera in 1935. At the time, Mussolini was engaged in highly public preparations for his invasion of Ethiopia. Although neither Louis nor Carnera had said anything about the issue, they were seen by many as representatives of Africa and Italy respectively. Fears that rioting might break out among the fans led to a pre-fight announcement urging all concerned to view the bout solely as a contest between two individuals and nothing more—surely one of the most futile exhortations in the history of sports. Louis finished off the hard-hitting, Mafia-backed Carnera in the sixth round.

It was not only Louis’s demure behavior that made him acceptable to the white establishment, it was also the peculiar politics of the times. He won the heavyweight crown in Chicago in 1937, in front of a crowd of 45,000, half of whom were black. But the year before, he had been beaten by a German, Max Schmeling, in a fight that had been hailed by Nazi ideologists as a triumph of Aryan supremacy. The rematch at Yankee Stadium in 1938 was at the time the most widely followed sporting contest in history and a huge event in the life of America’s black communities. Louis was made aware by the press, the churches, the president of the United States and the Communist party that knocking Schmeling’s block off was his duty to America, the cause of anti-fascism and “the Negro.” Any remaining doubts were removed when Nazis picketed his training camp.

In “High Tide in Harlem,” Richard Wright described the Louis–Schmeling fight as “a colorful puppet show, one of the greatest dramas of make-believe ever witnessed in America . . . a configuration of social images whose intensity and clarity had been heightened through weeks of skillful and constant agitation.” But this layer of drama was not entirely extraneous to the sporting nature of the contest itself. The level playing field offered laboratory-like conditions in which to test the theory of Aryan supremacy. Louis’s victory, like Jesse Owens’s at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, was a “scientific” repudiation of that theory and was seen as such by millions. When Louis demolished Schmeling in two minutes of the first round, the symbolism was intelligible to all, because it emerged from the egalitarian presuppositions of modern sports. “That was freedom day,” recalled Andrew Young. Like many of his generation, his early “consciousness as a black person came almost entirely from sport.”

This time blacks could celebrate without fear of reprisals. Louis may have whipped a white man, but that white man was a German and, what’s more, a symbol of the Nazi regime. Louis was fighting for America, or at least for the liberal America of the New Deal. For once, “Americanism” and anti-racialism were congruent. Louis was praised everywhere as “a credit to his race”—not merely because he had excelled in the ring but because he had vindicated “the American way” at a critical time. For the American elite, Louis was a means to rally popular support for a war against Germany and Japan. For American Communists, and partisans of the Popular Front, the Schmeling–Louis bout was a contest between “fascism” and “democracy.” On the night of the fight, Communists organized “Joe Louis radio parties” in black communities. Both the Communists and the elite emphasized the “dignity” with which Louis represented his people and with which he had elevated the hitherto despised sport of boxing.

In 1940, a group of black artists closely associated with the Popular Front came together to create “King Joe,” a musical tribute to Louis. Count Basie composed the music, Richard Wright wrote the lyric and Paul Robeson sang it. What’s intriguing about “King Joe” is its emphasis on Louis as a creation of black America.

Lord, I know a secret, swore I’d never tell, Lord, I know what makes old Joe hook and punch and roll like hell,
Black-eyed peas asks cornbread what makes you so strong,
Cornbread says I come from where Joe Louis was born.

And there is also a suggestion that the Louis white America knows is not the whole man:

They say Joe don’t talk much but he talks all the time
Now you can look at Joe, but you sure can’t read his mind.

Wright also noted that “what old Joe does at night, lord, sure ain’t done him no wrong.” Memories of what had happened to Jack Johnson were still alive in the black community, and Louis’s fans there were only too aware how any expression of sexuality would be construed by white people. As Langston Hughes put it, “the gossips had no ‘they say’ to latch onto for Joe.”

Joe has sense enough to know
He is a god.
So many gods don’t know.

Louis re-enforced his standing as a role model—for white America, for the black middle class and for much of the left—by enlisting for military service in World War II. Langston Hughes, who a decade before had asked, “What’s America to me?”, now held the champ up as an example to all Americans:

Joe Louis is a man
For men to imitate—
When his country needed him,
He did not stall or fail.
Joe took up the challenge
And joined up for the war.
Nobody had to ask him,
“What are you waiting for?”

While in the army, Louis fought ninety-six exhibition bouts for American troops around the world—all of them serving in racially segregated units. He received nothing more than his ordinary soldier’s pay. He dedicated the entire proceeds of one fight to the Navy Relief Fund, even though the navy was widely known as the most racist branch of the services. Louis did everything the white establishment asked of him and still ended up broke and humiliated. The federal government pursued him for back taxes; at one point, he had to take to wrestling to drum up cash. Louis looked in vain for a role in retirement commensurate with the glory he had enjoyed in his days in the ring. His spell in management, including time in Sonny Liston’s camp, was a failure. He struggled with drug addiction. In later years, he hobbled around Las Vegas, paid by casino owners to greet the high rollers.

The contrast between Johnson and Louis haunted the black fighters who followed them. There seemed to be only these two stereotypes for black sportsmen in America: the “bad nigger” and the “Uncle Tom.” Both Johnson and Louis, of course, were subjected to critical scrutiny never lavished on white champions, and both were defined by white perceptions. It was a polarity constructed by and for white people, and did a disservice to the complexities of both men, but it was nonetheless a polarity to which black people were compelled to respond. And in that response, they argued out the terms and conditions under which black people could survive—or even advance—in white-dominated America.

• • •

In a remote village in the north of Ceylon many years ago, a group of boys, playing truant from school, crowded into the village bakery to look at their first wireless. The owner twiddled the knobs with a flourish, showing his audience how he could bring the world to his doorstep. And suddenly he stopped—at an English song—though he understood not a word. A man was singing what sounded like a song of his people, a song that sounded so much like their own—and he sang as though the big heart of the radio itself would break. And they all fell silent, as though in prayer. I was one of those boys. -A. Sivanandan


No one knew better the complexities of serving as a public representative of an oppressed people than Paul Robeson. In 1922, after a path-breaking career in college football, he was briefly touted as a possible black challenger to Jack Dempsey. After consulting with friends and family, Robeson decided against the idea. The whole image of prizefighting, he felt, was unsuitable for a future leader of black America. Instead, he continued his law studies, supplementing his income by playing football for Akron. Professional football was a game of low pay and low prestige in those days, which was one reason it did not operate a color bar like baseball. (In a move upmarket, blacks were barred by the owners in 1934, and readmitted in a trickle only in the fifties.)

In 1927, after his Broadway triumph in The Emperor Jones, Robeson took on the role of a thinly veiled Jack Johnson in a play called Black Boy. The white press was offended by the subject matter and panned the play in racist terms; the black press disparaged its simple-minded hero as a stereotype. Robeson found himself caught in what was to become a familiar vice. As one of Du Bois’s “talented tenth,” he had long seen himself as a member of the black vanguard. As he overcame obstacle after obstacle, forced breakthrough after breakthrough—in sport, scholarship, singing, acting—he wrestled constantly with the ever-shifting demands, from both white and black, of his representative burden.

In December 1943, Robeson, with a delegation of black newspaper publishers, lobbied the major league baseball owners to drop the color bar and admit black players. Commissioner Landis introduced Robeson as “a great American.” The owners listened to Robeson in silence, applauded his speech, then did absolutely nothing to meet his demands. For all the talk of a “double victory” over fascism and Jim Crow, World War II ended with Jim Crow entrenched in both the United States Army and major league baseball. In 1945 Howard University awarded Robeson an honorary degree and he beat out Joe Louis for the NAACP Spingarn award. At the height of his fame and prestige, he was considered the most illustrious American black man of his time. But Robeson was also growing more intransigently political, speaking out in ever stronger terms for colonial freedom and against racism. Even more controversially, he denounced the Cold War and called for friendship with the Soviet Union. As anti-communism gripped the country, Robeson found his professional opportunities restricted. The day after Jackie Robinson’s first major league base hit, Robeson’s performance in Peoria was banned by the city council. In 1948, following the defeat of Henry Wallace’s third-party bid for the presidency (of which Robeson was a national co-chair), J. Edgar Hoover ordered his agents to intensify their surveillance of the singer. In the next few months, eighty-five of Robeson’s concert dates were canceled. In February 1949, he departed for Europe. In Britain, every concert was sold out, and he was welcomed as a hero by the labor movement. In Paris, he addressed the World Peace Congress, a Communist-organized initiative which had attracted 1800 delegates from 60 countries (among them Du Bois and Picasso). Robeson attacked those he believed were fueling hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union. According to the Associated Press, Robeson declared, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.” Though Robeson claimed he had been inaccurately quoted, he never disavowed the gist of the argument, which was to lead to his obliteration as a public figure in the United States. As his biographer Martin Duberman observed, “The showcase black American had turned out not to be suitably ‘representative’ after all—and it became imperative to isolate and discredit him.”

Much of the American press took Robeson’s reported remarks as proof that the “Communist fellow-traveler” was a traitor to his country. A New York Times editorial declared Robeson “mistaken and misled” and urged him to return to using “his great gifts” in the concert hall, a course of action denied him by the blacklist, which he could only escape from by recanting his political views. The State Department, alarmed at sympathy for Robeson in the foreign press, prevailed on Walter White of the NAACP to issue a formal statement. “Negroes are American,” White insisted. “We contend for full and equal rights and we accept full and equal responsibilities. In event of any conflict that our nation has with any other nation, we will regard ourselves as Americans and meet the responsibilities imposed on all Americans.”

White, like leaders of other established black organizations, feared that by implying that blacks were disloyal—or worse yet, pro- Communist—Robeson’s comments would set back the drive for full integration in the American system. “There’s a sort of unwritten law that if you want to criticize the United States you do it at home,” observed Bayard Rustin. “We have to prove we’re patriotic.” Rustin convened a meeting of nationally known black leaders at which a “Robeson does not speak for us” campaign was agreed. Statements denouncing Robeson were issued by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the A.M.E. Zion bishops, Mary McLeod Bethune (“American Negroes have always been loyal to America, they always will be”) and others. The very forces, both white and black, which had decreed Robeson a “representative of his race” and which had lauded his every achievement as a symbolic breakthrough for all black Americans were now insisting he represented nobody but himself. In an attempt to deny Robeson authenticity, Roy Wilkins even went so far as to declare, “Robeson has none except sentimental roots among American negroes. He is one of them, but not of them.”

Despite the vituperation, in parts of the black press there was a sneaking admiration for Robeson; he had blurted out what so many blacks thought but would not dare to say. “There is hardly a Negro living in the South who, at some time or another, has not felt as Robeson expressed himself,” said a North Carolina paper, “unwilling to lay down his life for a country that insults, lynches and restricts him to a second-class citizenship.”

On his return to America in June, Robeson confronted a hostile press corps at LaGuardia airport. “I happen to love America very much,” he told them, “not Wall Street and not your press.” At a welcome-home meeting organized by the Council on African Affairs, Robeson reiterated the sentiments which had already all but terminated his professional career in America:

I defy any part of an insolent, dominating America, however powerful. I defy any errand boys, Uncle Toms of the Negro people, to challenge my Americanism because by word and deed I challenge this vicious system to the death. I’m looking for freedom, full freedom, not an inferior brand. . . . We do not want to die in vain any more on foreign battlefields for Wall Street and the greedy supporters of domestic fascism. If we must die, let it be in Mississippi or Georgia. Let it be wherever we are lynched and deprived of our rights as human beings.

The New York Times reported this speech under the headline, “Loves Soviet Best, Robeson Declares.” The Hearst papers carried front-page editorials entitled, “An Undesirable Citizen” and announcing “it was an accident unfortunate for America that Robeson was born here.” The Amsterdam News called him a “selfish fraud” and Communist dupe.

In response to Robeson’s “disloyal and unpatriotic statements” the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) held hearings in July at which prominent negroes were asked to voice their dissatisfaction with Robeson. Alongside the stream of FBI informants and professional anti-Communists who denounced “the voice of the Kremlin” and “the black Stalin,” there were also academics, businessmen, NAACP and Urban League officials, not to mention the president of Fisk College. But the star witness was without doubt Jackie Robinson, then in his third and most successful major league season and already, along with Joe Louis and Robeson himself, one of the best-known blacks in America. He had just topped the All-Star poll and was batting .360 when he received a telegram from the chairman of HUAC inviting him to “to give the lie” to Robeson.

Like Robeson, Robinson was a college-educated all-round athlete and scholar. In the army he had stood up to a racist officer and faced a court-martial for his pains. The Dodgers’ owner, Branch Rickey, had chosen him not only for his athletic ability, but also for his articulate, calm demeanor and self-discipline. Unlike Robeson, he was committed to the capitalist system and the Republican party. He subscribed to the American version of the ethic of personal success, but was also a dedicated “race man” and always would be.

On 18 July 1949, in a committee room packed with press, radio, film and television crews, Robinson read out a statement he had prepared with the help of Rickey and Lester Granger, head of the Urban League. Robeson, he insisted, had a “right to his personal views, and if he wants to sound silly when he expresses them in public, that is his business and not mine.” He was careful not to claim any representative mandate, while at the same time questioning Robeson’s. “I can’t speak for any fifteen million people any more than any other one person can, but I know that I’ve got too much invested for my wife and child and myself in the future of this country, and I and other Americans have too much invested in our country’s welfare for any of us to throw it away because of a siren song sung in bass.” This was what the politicians and the press wanted to hear. Few noted the caveat Robinson was careful to attach to his declaration of loyalty. “Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist party and they’ll stay stirred up long after the party has disappeared—unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.” Just because blacks would always fight for America against foreign foes didn’t mean that “we’re going to stop fighting race discrimination in this country.” But, he added, “We can win our fight without the Communists and we don’t want their help.”

The New York Times reported Robinson’s statement on the front page and praised it in an editorial (“Jackie Robinson scored four hits and no errors”). Eleanor Roosevelt followed suit in her syndicated column. The black press put a different spin on the story. “Lynchers Our Chief Enemy Jackie Tells ‘Red’ Probers” was how the Philadelphia Afro-American reported the story. Other black papers printed letters and cartoons depicting Robinson as a white man’s “stooge.” Robeson himself claimed there was “no argument between Jackie and me” and insisted he would not “be drawn into any conflict dividing me from my brother victim of terror.” Later that summer, Robeson’s concert in Peekskill, New York, was attacked by right-wing vigilantes. The American Sports Annual deleted his name from its honor roll of football all-Americans for 1917 and 1918. By the dawn of the fifties, Robeson had been airbrushed from American popular consciousness.

Stripped of his passport, chronically ill, depressed and discouraged, Robeson nonetheless found the strength to deliver a sizzling indictment of the guardians of “Americanism” when he himself finally appeared before HUAC in 1956. “You want to shut up every Negro who has the courage to stand up to fight for the rights of his people,” he told the congressmen. When they asked him why he didn’t move to Russia, he answered, “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have part of it just like you. And no Fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” Openly contemptuous of his interrogators, seething with righteous indignation—it was Paul Robeson’s last great public performance.

Like many a heavyweight fight, the Robeson–Robinson confrontation was a public battle between black men staged by and for whites, with a more than interested black audience looking on. Both men had become “representatives” of their race by virtue of their successes as performers, principally as performers for white audiences. But they differed radically in their interpretation of their duties as “representative” figures. The questions posed by the HUAC hearings—“Who speaks for black Americans?” and “Where do black Americans’ loyalties lie?”—re-emerged in a fascinating exchange between Robinson and Malcolm X in 1963. In his syndicated column, Robinson had warned Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., “The Negro people are growing up, Adam, and I do not think they are sympathetic any longer to the business of supporting anything anyone does—wrong or right—simply because he belongs to the race.” Robinson had singled out Powell’s public dalliance with Malcolm and the Nation of Islam for criticism. In a letter to the Amsterdam News, Malcolm counter-attacked with glee, invoking Robeson to hit Robinson where it hurt:

Shortly after the white man lifted you from poverty and obscurity to the Major Leagues, Paul Robeson was condemning America for her injustices against American Negroes. Mr. Robeson questioned the intelligence of Negroes fighting to defend a country that treated them with such open contempt and bestial brutality. Robeson’s brilliant stand on behalf of our people left the guilty American whites speechless: they had no defence. They sought desperately to find another Negro who would be dumb enough to champion their bankrupt “white” cause against Paul Robeson. It was you who let yourself be used by whites even in those days against your own kind. You let them sic you on Paul Robeson.

Malcolm mocked Robinson’s alleged subservience to white patrons— Nixon, Rockefeller, Branch Rickey, his employers in the instant coffee business—and warned that if he ever became “militant in behalf of your people . . . the same whites whom you now take to be your friends will be the first to put the bullet or the dagger in your back.” Robinson replied at length, insisting he was “proud” of his associations with whites who had contributed to negro freedom. And he repeated that he believed negroes would reject Malcolm’s “racism” because “our stake in America is worth fighting for.” But it was when he pointed contemptuously to the gulf between Malcolm’s aggressive rhetoric and his passive practice that he hit Malcolm’s own sensitive spot:

Whom do you think you are kidding, Malcolm, when you say that Negro leaders ought to be “thankful” that you were not personally present in Birmingham or Mississippi after racial atrocities had been committed there? . . . You would have done exactly what you did after your own Muslim brothers were shot and killed in Los Angeles. . . . You mouth a big and bitter battle, Malcolm, but it is noticeable that your militancy is mainly expressed in Harlem where it is safe.

In this exchange, Robinson had the last word. By this time, Malcolm had been silenced by Elijah Muhammad and was unable to reply. But Robinson’s challenge had merely echoed Malcolm’s own thoughts, and his answer, in the end, was his break with the Nation of Islam.

Robinson, who never wavered from his anti-communism or his conviction that America was fighting a just war in Vietnam, was frequently derided as an Uncle Tom by the young militants of the late sixties. But they were attacking the Jackie Robinson of American Cold War propaganda, not the real man, who was far more complex. In January 1964, he praised “the glorious, militant leadership” of the black youth pitting their bodies against Jim Crow, but he also warned of the obstacles they would face as the center of the struggle moved to the northern ghettos. “These formerly friendly white folk are becoming more and more leery. Prejudice is a sinful thing, in their eyes, so long as it exists in someone else’s backyards. But let a negro protest against conditions in the backyard of the ‘liberals,’ the shoe begins to pinch.” Still, he insisted, whatever the obstacles, “no matter what the liberals say—no matter how much they resent the new attitudes and sentiments and militancy of the negro, the Revolution will and must continue.”

Robinson was a racial realist. He thought black people had to acquire economic and political power, and he tried to use the celebrity conferred on him by his sporting career to achieve it. But he was also acutely aware that this celebrity leverage worked two ways: it gave freedom and it took it away. Shortly after his attack on white liberals, he criticized Bayard Rustin for attending a cocktail party at the Soviet consulate in New York. He believed this “most foolish error” would be detrimental to the civil rights cause. In a weary reflection on the burdens of symbolic representation, he observed, “as unfair as it may seem to require a man to give up his personal prerogatives, the sacred mantle of leadership must be worn with great prudence.”

In late 1964, Robinson left the coffee business to work for Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign. As a delegate to the San Francisco convention that nominated Barry Goldwater, he was an eyewitness to the birth of the New Right. “I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany,” he observed bitterly. His autobiography, published shortly before his death in 1972, testifies to the sense of frustration that washed over Robinson in his last years. It’s there in his comment on the HUAC hearings of 1949:

In those days I had more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today. I would reject such an invitation if offered now. . . . I have grown wiser and closer to painful truths about America’s destructiveness, and I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who for over twenty years sacrificed himself, his career and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.

• • •

The fights between Johnson and Jeffries and Louis and Schmeling had been black against white. But in the sixties and seventies, the heavyweight division was dominated by blacks. This did not make the struggle for the title any less racially charged. On the contrary, the fights between Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali—and later between Ali and Ernie Terrell, Joe Frazier and George Foreman—all became valorized by the perceived relation of each fighter to white power. Like the Robeson–Robinson exchange, they became morality plays on the theme of black representation.

Like Mike Tyson, Floyd Patterson came out of the slums of Brooklyn and, like Tyson, he was raised from juvenile delinquency and trained in ringcraft by Cus D’Amato, a white Svengali who tried to keep both fighters out of the clutches of the crooks. Unlike Tyson, the studiously inoffensive, frugal and churchgoing Patterson became a hero to white America. Having become the youngest man ever to win the heavyweight title, he was invited to the White House, married a white woman, bought a house in a white neighborhood and became a symbol of the integrationist ideal. Norman Mailer called him “a liberal’s liberal.” In his 1962 autobiography, Victory over Myself (its cover graced with a photo of Patterson with JFK) he listed his role models as Joe Louis, Ralph Bunche and Jackie Robinson and made clear that his ambition was to live up to their example as “representatives of the race.”

D’Amato lamented Patterson’s lack of “viciousness.” Yet it was D’Amato who for several years shielded Patterson from Sonny Liston, widely recognized as the number one contender and the toughest heavyweight on the circuit. D’Amato could get away with this because absolutely nobody wanted Sonny Liston to be the heavyweight champ. “Patterson draws the color line against his own race,” Liston complained. “We have a hard enough time as it is in the white man’s world.” And it was true that until Liston, Patterson had agreed to meet only one black challenger.

Liston was the most disliked black sports star since Jack Johnson. He was introduced to boxing at the age of eighteen in the Missouri State Penitentiary and turned professional soon after his release. In between his early bouts, he provided debt-collecting muscle for local hoodlums. In 1956, he was arrested for assaulting a police officer, following a dispute outside his own home, and was sentenced to nine months in an Illinois workhouse. This conviction not only made it difficult for him to get fights (which, in turn, made him more dependent on the mob), it also made him a marked man for every white cop in the country. By 1962, he had a record of nineteen arrests. During his stay in Philadelphia, Liston, by now recognized as the leading heavyweight contender, was continually rousted by police, who charged him with a wide array of offenses, including impersonating a police officer. When he left the city for a new home in Denver, he told the press, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.”

Sonny was illiterate but quick-witted, and more than prepared to stand his ground against bullies in uniform. Despite his police record and his mob connections, used again and again to deny him a title shot, he was generous and sensitive, as well as prickly and wary. His biographer, Rob Steen, was right to observe, “All Sonny ever got were cheap shots.” One of the most persistent concerned his date of birth, which was shrouded in mystery. For the press, Liston’s inability to produce a birth certificate was evidence of criminality. In fact, Liston was born to a family of impoverished rural workers, with the aid of a midwife not a doctor, and he was his father’s twenty-fourth child. Not surprisingly, his birth went unrecorded. Liston hailed from America’s anonymous lower depths—and he was punished for it. Depicted as sullen, violent, ignorant and menacing, Liston was fair game for journalists, boxing authorities and politicians. Leroi Jones identified him as “the big black negro in every white man’s hallway, waiting to do him in, deal him under, for all the hurt white men have been able to inflict on his world.” But black leaders also froze him out, deeming him an unfit representative of the race. How could a mobbed-up street-brawler project the clean-cut, moderate, non-violent image by which they set such store? The NAACP urged Patterson not to give him a title shot. Back in 1932, W.E.B. Du Bois had decried the way “the emancipated and rising negro has tried desperately to disassociate himself from his own criminal class. He has been all too eager to class criminals as outcasts, and to condemn every negro who has the misfortune to be arrested or accused.” Years later, Sonny Liston found himself at the mercy of the “combination of ignorance and Pharisaism” which Du Bois had railed against.

In the end, however, Liston got his chance, partly because Patterson was embarrassed by the allegations that he was dodging Sonny, but mainly because the promoters and authorities knew that excluding Liston would discredit the heavyweight title even more than giving it to him. The public backed Patterson, but it wanted his superiority proved in the ring.

Thus the scene was set for a fight with almost as many symbolic overtones as Louis–Schmeling. Sports Illustrated invoked the Cold War: “In this day and age we cannot afford an American heavyweight champion with Liston’s unsavory record.” The president of the National Boxing Association made no effort to disguise his bias: “In my opinion, Patterson is a fine representative of his race, and I believe the heavyweight champion of the world should be the kind of man our children could look up to.” Patterson received messages of support from JFK, Ralph Bunche and Eleanor Roosevelt. Percy Sutton, then president of the Manhattan NAACP, later a millionaire power-broker in the Democratic party, declared: “I’m for Patterson because he represents us better than Liston ever could or would.”

Not everyone in the black community subscribed to Sutton’s view. “They painted Liston Black. They painted Patterson White. And that was the simple conflict,” said Leroi Jones. “Which way would the black man go? This question traveled on all levels through society.” Liston himself seemed resigned to his assigned role. “A prizefight is like a cowboy movie,” he said. “There has to be a good guy and a bad guy. People pays their money to see me lose. Only in my cowboy movie, the bad guy always wins.” Sure enough, Liston knocked out Patterson in the first round. In the rematch ten months later, he did it again. “Each time Patterson fell,” Leroi Jones recalled, “a vision came to me of the whole colonial West crumbling in some sinister silence.” The press now declared Liston “invincible”—but they still thought someone else should be champion. In December 1963, an Esquire fantasy feature pitted Liston against the champions of yesteryear. Sonny beat Louis and Rocky Marciano before succumbing to Dempsey.

It is hard to believe now, but at first Cassius Clay appeared to many Liston-haters as a “great white hope.” Certainly he was happy enough in the beginning to join in the conventional role-play. At ringside for the Liston–Patterson fight, Thomas Hauser reports, “he shook Patterson’s hand, looked towards Liston, threw his hands in the air in mock terror, and fled.” In the build-up to the fight with the man he called “that big ugly bear,” Clay dehumanized his opponent:

Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons. . . . After I whup Sonny Liston, I’m gonna whup those little green men from Jupiter and Mars. And looking at them won’t scare me none because they can’t be no uglier than Sonny Liston. . . . I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him.... I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I can’t be beaten. . . . He’s too ugly to be the world champ. The world champ should be pretty like me.

Here Clay echoed the racist stereotype of the black boxer as an uneducated animal, but he did so with a playful panache and impish vanity that neither the rigidly righteous Patterson nor the warily defensive Liston could hope to match. At a publicity stunt in Las Vegas, Clay so riled Liston that the usually taciturn champ called him a “nigger faggot.” In evaluating the racial symbolism of the contest, it should be remembered that it was Liston, not Clay, who lent support to the civil rights movement by insisting on a contractual clause barring segregated movie theaters from showing the title bout on closed-circuit television. “Someday they’re gonna write a blues song just for fighters,” Sonny once said. “It will be for a slow guitar, soft trumpet and a bell.” “He’s lonely and he’s been hurt,” James Baldwin observed. “To me, Liston is sweet.”


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