In February 1964, a young Cassius Clay – soon to be known as Muhammad Ali –shook up the world by beating Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Clay was a sensation in Miami’s black community, riding through Liberty City and Overtown (where he shared a small apartment with his brother, Rudy) with the top down on his pink Cadillac. According to Grady Ponder, a quiet, local man who trained and even briefly roomed with the champ when he was just a teenager, local kids would swarm the car when Ali rode through the neighborhood, giddy just to catch a glimpse of the heavyweight champion of
I thought about Ali when it first leaked that President Barack Obama would be coming to Miami Beach, a place where, during Ali’s time here, police would have ordered him off the beach by sundown but where today, this young president who shook up the world by being elected to the highest office in the land can raise $1.5 million just by showing up.
And though I’m old enough, politically savvy (or perhaps cynical) enough to know better, I couldn’t help but hope that some day soon, the presidential motorcade will leave South Beach, and roll slowly up 27th Avenue as squealing children and delighted parents line the sidewalks, reinvested with the enthusiasm and hope that, during the election, was distilled down to three simple but powerful words that became part rallying cry, part iconic pop culture phrase: “Yes, we can.”
I wondered whether Obama’s official schedule might one day include a trip to a neighborhood like Overtown or Liberty City, where poverty, joblessness and HIV/AIDS are sapping the hope out of young people. Or to Little Haiti, where families are holding out hope that a change in administration policy will free their loved ones from detention, by granting temporary protected status to relatives fleeing their troubled home. (An administration spokesman told me that there would be no change on Haiti during the president’s trip.) Or to Miami Dade College, where students are struggling to pay for school, and wondering whether there will be any jobs for them if and when they graduate.
President Obama had a lot on his plate when he came to Florida this week. He addressed the troops in Jacksonville, promising not to rush them into the war in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, he announced a major initiative for a “smart energy grid” in Arcadia.
But next time he’s in South Florida, I hope his schedulers also fit in a surprise visit to the students at Miami Northwestern or Edison high school. There, he could announce to a stunned, grinning mass of normally jaded teenagers that football isn’t the only way out of poverty – that they can be lawyers, or doctors, or president of the United States if their parents engage. He could let them know that if they study hard, they can shake off the cynicism that measures their worth by how fast they run up the field, how hard they can dunk a basketball, or how lewd they can make the lyrics of a rap song.
The reality of South Florida as a fundraising hub for the Democratic Party, and South Florida as lived by many of its residents, couldn’t be further apart.
For all its glamour, Miami remains one of the poorest big cities in America. Miami-Dade County, soon to be home to a glittering new baseball stadium, has an 11.3 percent unemployment rate and a high school graduation rate of around 60 percent.
The latest Census figures (in 2006) find that more than 29 percent of black and more than 27 percent of Hispanic adults 25 years of age or older in the county lack a high school diploma, while just 20 percent of blacks and 30 percent of Hispanics over 25 possess a college degree. The same Census survey found that 12.7 percent of Miami-Dade adults over 25 have no more than a ninth-grade education.
And yet, for the Democratic establishment, Miami is known more for its open checkbooks and proximity to South Beach’s fine hotels than for these stark realities. The administration spokesman informed me that the White House Office of Urban Affairs is in the midst of an “urban tour” studying “the challenges and solutions facing cities and metropolitan areas across the country.” Miami didn’t make the cut.
That’s too bad, because as one prominent local Obama supporter told me in an email, in which he also informed me he was passing on the fundraiser at the Fontainebleau Hotel, the spirit of inspirational change that was planted here during the campaign is due for an energy infusion.
If the administration wants to re-engage the South Floridians who can’t afford to stand in a $500 rope line, President Obama could sure use an Ali moment in Miami.
Joy-Ann Reid is a writer and media/political strategist who worked on President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign. She is currently completing a documentary film about the history of boxing in Miami.