Nobody Knows My Name is the title of a book James Baldwin scarcely had to write, the title so nearly said everything Negro Writer Baldwin had in mind. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Senior Editor Jack Olsen. who is not a Negro, has just spent the better part of three months with Cassius Clay, Cassius' family and Cassius' friends of the Black Muslim persuasion, and he says. "In all the time I worked with Cassius. in New York and Louisville and Miami, he never learned my name." You might call that a case of poetic equivalence in an area where perhaps there is no justice.
"It's next to impossible to explain something that I experienced in working on the story," Olsen went on, "but somewhere along the line I learned what it is like to be a Negro. I mean what it is really like. I was around the Muslims for a couple of months, and they make you feel exactly the way some whites make the Negro feel. They don't insult you; they just act as if you aren't there. The shortest and quickest course a white man can take to learn about Negroness is to hang with the Muslims. Then he will understand the American Negro—the cloud of contempt in which he walks the streets, the feeling that he comes only as high as the while man's knee, the feeling that produces Uncle Toms at one end of the spectrum and Black Muslims at the other, the feeling of what it is to be considered dirt."
Jack Olsen is a man of extraordinary wit and charm, and well aware of it. Queen Elizabeth would have to work at it to make him feel like dirt, but Cassius and his friends managed. In all the weeks of interviews Cassius referred to Olsen as "big shot," "reporter" or "hey," but mostly "he just finessed the whole thing, the way the rest of us called him Champ instead of Muhammad Ali."
But Olsen stayed with Muhammad Ali, to the point of being accorded the tribute: "You look like you got a little mixed in you. You don't look all white to me." Clay meant this as a compliment. Olsen says, "It was like being made an M.B.E. or an honorary member of the B'nai B'rith or something. I dig the things that unseparate men."
April 11, 1966
There is a great deal that separates Clay himself from other men, most of it understandable, some of it unjust. The article on page 89 of this issue is the first of a five-part series that later will appear as a full-length book, Cassius Clay: A Study in Emotional Turmoil. So much has already been printed about Clay that a question naturally a uses as to what there is left to say. But, as Olsen points out. Clay is good copy and reporters have found it too easy to exploit his every outrageous word without feeling any necessity to explore the man.
Jack Olsen has explored him. with care and ultimately with sorrow. "To me." he says. "Cassius is no more reprehensible than Mother Cabrini or Lucky Luciano or me. He is exactly the result of the soil he grew up in, and for the mess he has got himself into I have nothing but compassion and, I hope, understanding."