Tuesday Feb. 25 marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most notable nights in boxing, sports and Miami Beach history: the incredible upset victory of Cassius Clay over World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston.
The fact that the fight took place in Florida makes the memory all the more special, and given where the state was at then vs. now, it’s all the more meaningful.
In February 1964, enactment of the Civil Rights Act was still five months away. The historic effort to desegregate Florida’s (and America’s) oldest city, St. Augustine, was gaining steam.
Florida was in the throes of the same civil rights upheaval occurring across so much of the rest of the U.S.
Tallahassee in particular was a hotbed of unrest in 1963, as activists staged sit-ins and other peaceful protests calling for desegregation of restaurants, theaters, retail stores, etc.
Many white Americans in the capital and statewide cheered for the 18-year-old Clay on his way to an Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, but four years later he remained unwelcome at their “whites only” beaches, diners, movie houses and more.
Descended from slaves, Clay discovered a proud new affinity and powerful identity with the Nation of Islam during those years. He went into the Liston fight just days before officially taking the Muslim name he already went by and wanted others to use: Muhammed Ali.
Liston steadfastly refused, then paid for it by being battered and knocked out by Clay, who repeatedly shouted, “What’s my name?” as he showed up the stunned, soon-to-be ex-champ.
The contrast between the two men was sharp.
About 12 years (no official birth records) before Cassius Clay’s birth, Liston was born into a poor Arkansas sharecropper family, one of 13 children living a hard life.
Clay was the older of two boys born to a middle class couple in Louisville, Kentucky.
By his early 20s, Liston was serving prison time for robbery and assault of a policeman.
By his early 20s, Clay was an Olympic champion poised to become boxing’s next heavyweight champion, and much more…Muhammed Ali.
Boxing got Liston paroled from prison and organized crime interests reportedly played a major role in his career, until his death in 1971 from what authorities ruled a heroin overdose.
Boxing helped Cassius Clay become Muhammed Ali. Islam played an enduring role in his career, and in his role as social activist and hero to many.
He was that rare figure in American history: A man of great fame and fortune, willing to sacrifice it all to follow his conscience and have the courage of his convictions.
He vocally opposed the Vietnam War and in 1966 refused to serve when drafted, risking everything. He said this:
“No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave masters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.”
You may question the 1960s rhetoric. But Ali was consciously and courageously connecting violence against the Vietnamese to violence against African Americans at home.
And he was giving as good an example as any Floridian or American should ever need of what the phrase “stand your ground” should mean, at its best.
As we remember the historic prizefight Clay won in Miami Beach 50 years ago, let’s remember too the fights for social justice Ali won by standing his moral high ground in the years that followed.
Then, let’s stand ours, as Floridians, by rejecting any statute, legal defense or language that encourages violent attacks on innocent young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
A New York University graduate, Daniel Tilson owns a Boca Raton-based firm, Full Cup Media, offering “a la carte” and custom-bundled packages of communication services.