Sonny Liston excerpt No. 2
Shaun Assael talks about Sonny’s uneasy relationship with the civil rights movement
More than a decade after Sonny Liston’s 1970 death from what a coroner called natural causes — and police suspected was an accidental OD of heroin — bookies, mobsters and cops in Las Vegas still whispered about whether the former heavyweight champ had died at the hands of someone else. In this excerpt from chapter three of his upcoming book, The Murder of Sonny Liston, ESPN senior writer Shaun Assael talks about Liston’s uneasy relationship with the civil rights movement. Warning: This article contains language that some readers may find offensive.
Sonny’s head kept telling him that he should stay home and keep Geraldine happy. But his heart kept leading him to the boozy, shiftless soul of the Las Vegas ghetto.
Most of the African-Americans who lived in the Westside had relatives who arrived in the teeth of the Great Depression. They gave up making $2.50 a day farming in Louisiana, Arkansas, or Texas so they could start new lives by laying the brick and mortar that built the casinos. By the early fifties, a second wave followed to fill the jobs that the new casinos had available for kitchen help, shoe shiners, janitors, and, of course, showgirls and musicians.
They settled in shacks and, if they were lucky, worked for employers who ran shuttles to the casinos, because it was a dangerous trip to make on foot. Gauntlets of white toughs often waited on the other side of the tracks to cause trouble. Sunday was the only day when a family dressed for church could feel halfway comfortable venturing into the white side of town and walking past the shops and casinos that they were barred by law from entering.
Walled off and hemmed in, the residents of the Westside built a city within their city and filled it with family-owned businesses: Johnson’s Malt Shop, the Dixie Meat Market, Crockett’s barbershop, and of course Gilbert’s Liquor Store, where old man Gilbert was willing to sell whiskey on credit.
In the middle of it all was the beating heart of their neighborhood: The shadow strip that ran along Jackson Street was luminously filled with nightclubs that jumped all through the night: the Cotton Club. The Ebony Club. El Morocco. The Louisiana Club. Town Tavern. After the casinos on the white side of town closed, their headliners would come to Jackson Street to unwind. Kids who couldn’t go inside hung out on the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the stars.
The pivotal moment for the Westside came in 1955, while Sonny was still slugging his way through St. Louis. A group of white investors from Los Angeles sensed the time was ripe for something grand and opened an integrated hotel and casino, the Moulin Rouge, that rose fifteen stories over Bonanza. Its location, a stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, lured adventurous whites to gamble in its casino, chase colored showgirls, and rub shoulders with black entertainers, who loved playing the place, since it afforded them accommodations they couldn’t get anywhere else. (In one famous story, Nat King Cole was allegedly barred from entering the Tropicana by a doorman who told Cole’s white companion, the publicity manager of the Sands, “I don’t care if he’s Jesus Christ, he’s a nigger and stays out.”)
In just a few short weeks, the hotel became more successful than its investors ever envisioned. In fact, it became too successful. The Sun wrote about the “factions in town that will not stop to wreck the experiment of the Moulin Rouge,” which was diverting business from Strip stalwarts, like the Sands and the Sahara. Six months after it opened, it was padlocked in a cloud of confusion.
There was talk that the big hotels pressured the banks to call in its loans, that the original investors were stretched thin, that the mob was skimming its profits. As dancer Norma Tolbert later recalled, “We thought it would last forever, [but] we showed up for work one day and it was closed.”
With an unlit sign casting shadows on an empty parking lot, the Moulin Rouge became an ugly symbol of crushed aspirations. By the time Sonny arrived a decade later, the Westside was a ghost of its former self. Still, it offered him its own kind of sanctuary. On the white side of town, he always found himself on guard, either from the curiosity seekers who wanted to poke him like some goddamn zoo animal or from the good-natured liberals who wanted to tell him they understood his pain. (He couldn’t tell who was more irritating.) On the Westside he didn’t have to put up with any of that.
One of Sonny’s favorite places was Loves Cocktail Lounge, a cozy spot on Jackson Street with leopard-patterned couches up front, a long bar that seated fifty, and a poolroom in the back decorated with photos of all the celebrities who stopped in. The list included B.B. King, Michael Jackson, Big Joe Turner, and Cassius Clay.
To hear the lounge’s owner, Dorothy Love, “Once Sonny got drunk, there was no one nicer. He completely forgot who he was. He’d buy drinks for the room and all our regulars gathered around him. Someone would say, ‘Tell us how you knocked out Floyd Patterson,’ and he’d get up and, you know, box with them. He’d keep the whole room laughing. A lot of nights I brought him over to our house and cooked him neck bones and gravy. He was a member of our family.”
If he wasn’t at Loves, he’d be at a dingy place down Jackson Street, Low Cost Card Games, playing a fast, betting version of rummy called Tonk. Or at Friendly Liquor, a packaged-goods store on the edge of the Golden West Shopping Center that had a bar with about ten stools where he could keep an eye on his pink Cadillac outside.
What bothered the churchgoing leaders of the Westside about Sonny’s outsize presence wasn’t that he was drinking but that that was pretty much all he was doing. “I was very involved in the women’s group of the United Methodist Church,” Ruby Amie-Pilot, a prominent member of the NAACP, told me. “With all the problems going on, he could have made a choice to be involved. But I didn’t know of his involvement in any of the groups I worked with.” When asked if she ever met Liston personally, the longtime activist added, “No, I didn’t want to cross him.”
Wilbur Jackson had no such qualms. A lifelong resident of the Westside, the Las Vegas policeman understood as acutely as anyone how the racial lines cut. “If I was on the white side of the underpass at Main Street and Bonanza, I couldn’t make an arrest,” he told me. “I had to wait to go to the black side before I could enforce the law.”
Jackson’s visibility, and his full-throated support of the NAACP, made him a leading voice in the community. There weren’t any streetlights in the area he patrolled, and the police department didn’t have walkie-talkies or radios. So Jackson walked his beat alone, measuring out a circular section from Gilbert’s Liquor Store at Bonanza and D, up to H Street and the El Rio Club, over to Lake Meade Boulevard and then back to Jackson Street. If he got in trouble, the only way he could call for help was on the pay phone at the Rancho Market.
That prominence led to a call one day from a young Clay, who wanted to know if he could walk the beat with Jackson.
The two men spent the night talking about Clay’s emerging conviction that America’s blacks needed to take their affairs into their own hands.
One of the places where Jackson liked to stop after his late-night shifts was the Cove Hotel on Jackson Street. The Cove was an example of the racial schizophrenia in the city. Even though its clientele was all black, the Cove took out ads in the local papers featuring a white bodybuilder on a surf board, in the hopes that banks that didn’t normally lend money to African-American businesses would be tricked into thinking it catered to Caucasians. Its list of advertised amenities included “air conditioned rooms, heated pool and sunbathing, surf room, lounge and bar, dancing, entertainment, banquets, conventions.”
Jackson enjoyed the girlie dance reviews and found himself one evening standing behind a table by the stage. He had no idea that Sonny was sitting in front of him until the crowd pressed toward the stage and he bumped into Sonny’s elbow. With surprising speed, Sonny wheeled around and motioned as if he was about to grab Jackson and throw him across the room.
At six-foot-three, Jackson wasn’t the kind to back down easily. He took out his Smith & Wesson and leveled it at Liston’s head. Sonny, who kept a gun strapped to his ankle, glared at Jackson. But the showdown ended there. For whatever reason, Sonny chose not to be another headline on this night.
“He liked to push people around, but he wasn’t the baddest man on the Westside,” Jackson recalled. “He wasn’t no Cassius Clay in our community. He knew who I was and knew he’d made a mistake. So he went back to his drink and I went back to the show.”
The Golden West Shopping Center was another good intention gone wrong. The leaders of the Westside hoped that if they built it, investment would follow. But thanks to the dire shape of the neighborhood, that investment never came. Instead, zombie armies of junkies shuffled up and down its parking lot, providing an open market for drugs.
Friendly Liquor Store, which was across the street, got the spillover. “It was bad, real bad,” recalls former Las Vegas PD narcotics officer Joe Crocetti. “People who’d kill you for a dime and slice you open hung out there. I remember we got a call about a fight, and six of us showed up in one car with shotguns. When I walked in, a guy was literally holding his intestines in his hands. Somebody had sliced him. You couldn’t see stuff like that in the movies.”
Sonny liked Friendly’s because it gave him a chance to see and be seen. Anyone who wanted to buy drugs knew where to find him, and he knew where to find anyone who owed him for them. But in the fall of 1969 it also provided a perch to watch his playground burn.
The spark was a common traffic stop. A black police officer, Robert Arrington, was patrolling the area when he stopped a cabdriver, who was also black, for speeding. The commotion caused two brothers to come running run from their house, and when Arrington told them to go back inside, one returned with a shotgun. Arrington sprayed him with Mace and called for backup, but by the time the brothers were in cuffs, a crowd of 150 onlookers had gathered, some advancing on the officers and pelting them with rocks before they splintered into packs and began fanning into the night.
Small clusters of chaos turned into larger clusters as fires spread through street corners and tinderbox tenements. More than two hundred cops flooded the area before the chief of police decided that was making matters worse and pulled them shortly before midnight. By dawn, city officials were holding their breaths and calling the episode an isolated outbreak.
Later that afternoon, however, two white men picking up a friend at Golden West were set upon by a gang and beaten unconscious, sparking a second wave of violence that was twice as fierce. This time rioters swarmed the shopping center, looting Friendly’s for liquor bottles so they could make Molotov cocktails. A sixty-four-year-old electrician was pulled from his vehicle and beaten while a woman was yanked out of hers and forced to strip. Several bystanders were wheeled into emergency rooms with their heads cracked open. Cars were set on fire and the windshields of passing police cruisers broken.
This time every cop in the city was pressed into action. Even plainclothes detectives who looked more like the rioters than cops were ordered to don their uniforms and report to a command station with their helmets on and nightsticks at the ready.
The Golden West looked like the Alamo as sharpshooters were stationed on rooftops and police cruisers formed barricades. When a 7:00 p.m. curfew was imposed, commanders started shouting through bullhorns: “Those who don’t want to get hurt should leave the area immediately.” In a questionable decision, the fire chief, Jerry Miller, recalled all his trucks out of what he insisted was fear for the safety of his men. By nightfall the power company had even turned off electricity to the area.
“They wouldn’t let nobody in and they wouldn’t let nobody out,” Wilbur Jackson recalls. “[People] couldn’t go to work on their jobs, and say if somebody was on dialysis or a breathing machine or something, the power was cut off. I’d never heard of nothing like that in law enforcement. And the thing was, it was the kids who were rioting. The people in the community didn’t have nothing to do with it. Folks like me wasn’t running through Golden West Plaza setting fires and stuff.”
When those fires were finally put out, the Westside was in ruins.
If the melee showed anything besides how easily poverty burns, it was that there was a militant army that wasn’t going to be satisfied with the old-timers in the churches who were counseling patience. A mimeographed newsletter, The Torch, warned: “Don’t be too damn surprised if we ignore your racist bureaucracy in the future. We are telling it like it is. Dig it. You will reap what you have sown. And, baby, it’s liable to be one hell of a harvest.”
Community leaders like Jackson and Ruby Amie-Pilot desperately tried to pick up the pieces. They held meetings with elected officials to open lines of dialogue. But both told me that every time they saw Sonny after that, they couldn’t contain their contempt. It wasn’t just that he seemed to disregard the decades of history that had been destroyed around him. Or that he drank to excess and pumped drugs into an already sick bloodstream. It was that he did all of it knowing he could return to his pretty little house in the suburbs anytime he wanted. “The rest of us, we stayed,” Jackson said.
Of course, Sonny looked at it differently. He’d done plenty for the movement. In fact, he might say that he’d taken more punches than any of them.
Back in 1960, when he was the leading contender for Floyd Patterson’s crown and found himself in the middle of a national debate about whether he was civilized enough to fight for the title, Sonny felt humiliatingly exposed. His arrest and jailing for breaking the cop’s leg in 1956 cemented his reputation as a man at war with the world around him, while a December 1960 appearance before a U.S. Senate committee reinforced the perception of him as uneducable. “How much education did you get?” the Democratic senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, asked once Sonny was sworn in.
“I didn’t get any,” he replied “You didn’t go to school at all?” “No, sir. Too many kids.”
Sonny tried to climb the ladder of the educated Negroes who seemed to hold him in contempt. Really he did. He worked with the Chicago American on a profile in which he tried to appeal to the black upper class. After admitting that he had hung out with “some pretty tough men” in his St. Louis days, he said: “I never knew there were any other kind of people. I’d heard of Negro doctors and lawyers, and outstanding businessmen, of course. But how was I going to get with them? They were educated, refined people. I wasn’t educated and I knew I wasn’t refined.”
When Patterson finally agreed to a fight in 1962, it was as if he’d agreed to an act of supreme charity instead of acknowledging the very great challenge before him. Jackie Robinson said it was a shame that Liston’s “record isn’t better” but placed the pressure on Patterson, saying he had to fight Liston “to prove himself to the public.” The activist Dick Gregory insisted that the problem wasn’t that Liston’s influencers were mob-connected; it was that they were white. John F. Kennedy urged Patterson to find someone with a better “character.”
Liston’s character, in other words, had become a national obsession, a laser light on the issue of whether the fight for civil rights needed to be waged with civil behavior. Dr. King was busy promoting the philosophy of nonviolence that he’d traveled to India to study in 1959, and the Freedom Riders were launching their first foray into the South. Yet here came the most violent man on the planet, demanding to take one of its most symbolic crowns.
When Sonny wrested the title away from Patterson at Comiskey Park in Chicago on September 25, 1962, he was surprised by the weight that settled on him. He had won it in two minutes and five seconds — the first time a heavyweight crown was decided in the first round — starting with a right uppercut, continuing with two left hooks, and finally, when Patterson used his left hand to rest on the ropes, a pile-driving left hook to the jaw. But the press acted like Sonny had robbed a bank. Even when Sonny suggested that a rematch should be held under the auspices of Big Brothers “to prove that I mean what I say about helping boys who need help,” Larry Merchant of the Philadelphia Daily News suggested that he get a ticker-tape parade made out of arrest warrants.
On the way back to Philadelphia, Sonny began practicing a speech about how he, like Patterson, would reign as a gentleman champion. When he walked off the plane in Philly, only a ground crew was there to hear it.
Fuck it, he thought, turning his back on the city that turned its back on him. He packed up his things to drive cross-country with Geraldine, telling the press, “I’d rather be a lamppost in Denver than the mayor of Philadelphia.” Unfortunately, the Philly cops gave their Denver brethren such an earful about him that he couldn’t get any more peace when he arrived in Colorado. He was rousted, arrested, and generally made miserable. “Sonny got stopped every day for about twenty-five straight days,” an old sparring partner, Ray Schoeninger, told The Denver Post. “We used to go do our road work at the City Park Golf Course. Sonny used to drive this big, fancy Cadillac and the cops would just wait for him to get on the road. Then they’d pull him over, just to see his driver’s license. Just to hassle him.” Fearing that time was running out to get him in shape for his rematch with Patterson, his mob handlers shuffled him off once more, this time to train in Las Vegas.
Vegas! Why hadn’t he thought of it before? By day he opened up his workouts to high rollers. At night there was an institutional supply of showgirls. Sonny was in the best shape of his life when Patterson showed up to the rematch at the Las Vegas Convention Center on July 22, 1963, and this time was only able to hang in the ring for four more seconds than the first time. After the clouds of defeat cleared from his head, Patterson walked to his dressing room and told reporters that he was going to have to start all over again. What choice did he have?
While Patterson was left to rebuild his career, Sonny became the subject of ever greater caricatures. Press conferences became exercises in trying to get the big oaf to blow his stack. One exception in the media was another Sports Illustrated writer, Barbara La Fontaine. Watching as reporters baited him with questions about his birth date, which no one believed was really May 1932, La Fontaine responded with the voice she seemed to wish her subject could muster. She called her fellow reporters “curiously spiteful [in an] effeminate way; the word for it would be catty — if catty were strong enough.”
A fictional birth date might have seemed like the least of Sonny’s troubles. But, as La Fontaine sensed, it created a vacuum that he could never fill. A man without a birth certificate is missing something everyone else takes for granted: a reference point. Not having one made Sonny feel like an afterthought, lacking even a census record to document his arrival.
But instead of being allowed to deal with it privately, the press forced to him defend himself against an obvious lie. As one of the few reporters who was able to get close to Sonny, Jack McKinney of the Philadelphia Daily News, later put it: “When guys wrote that he was 32 going on 50, it had more of an impact than anybody realized. Sonny didn’t know who he was. He was looking for an identity and he thought being champion would give him one.”
By the time he moved full-time to Vegas in 1966, Sonny was done trying to rehabilitate himself. Let Floyd Patterson win all the humanitarian awards. Let Ali be the voice of his generation. Let those “educated” Negroes fuck themselves.
Sonny hadn’t traveled all these miles to get into fights that weren’t his own.