Today in 1964, a crowd of 8,300 spectators gathered at the Convention Hall arena in Miami Beach and witnessed 22-year-old Cassius Clay shock the odds-makers by taking the world heavyweight boxing championship from Sonny Liston in a seventh-round technical knockout. The dreaded Liston, who had twice demolished former champ Floyd Patterson in one round, was an 8-to-1 favorite. By the time Liston decided to discontinue the bout between the sixth and seventh rounds, he and Clay were about equal in points. A few conjectured that Liston faked the injury and threw the fight, but there was no real evidence, such as a significant change in bidding odds just before the bout, to support this claim.
Two days later, Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam and took the Muslim name of Muhammad Ali. After successfully defending his title nine times, it was stripped from him in 1967 after he refused induction into the U.S. Army on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector. That year, he was sentenced to five years in prison for violating the Selective Service Act but was allowed to remain free as he appealed the decision.
In 1970, he was allowed to return to the boxing ring, and the next year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s draft evasion conviction. In 1974, he regained the heavyweight title in a match against George Foreman in Zaire and successfully defended it in a contest against Joe Frazier in the Philippines in the following year. In 1978, he lost the title to Leon Spinks but later that year defeated Spinks in a rematch, making him the first boxer to win the heavyweight title three times.
He retired in 1979 but returned to the ring twice in the early 1980s. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome and has suffered a slow decline of his motor functions ever since. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia. At a White House ceremony in November 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ali’s career record includes 56 wins, 5 losses and 37 knockouts.
Sonny Liston was found dead in his Las Vegas home on January 5, 1971. It’s believed he could have been dead for a week by that time and the cause of his death remains a mystery. In his career, he recorded 50 wins, 39 knockouts and 4 losses.
Today in 1862, Congress passed the Legal Tender Act, authorizing the use of paper notes to pay the government’s bills. This ended the long-standing policy of using only gold or silver in transactions, and it allowed the government to finance the enormously costly Civil War long after its gold and silver reserves were depleted.
The Legal Tender Act allowed the government to print $150 million in paper money that was not backed by a similar amount of gold and silver. Many bankers and financial experts predicted doom for the economy, as they believed there would be little confidence in the scheme. There were also misgivings in Congress, as many legislators worried about a complete collapse of the nation’s financial infrastructure.
The paper notes, called greenbacks, worked much better than expected. The government was able to pay its bills and, by increasing the money in circulation, the wheels of Northern commerce were greased. The greenbacks were legal tender, which meant that creditors had to accept them at face value. In 1862, Congress also passed an income tax and steep excise taxes, both of which cooled the inflationary pressures created by the greenbacks.
Another legal tender act passed in 1863, and by war’s end nearly a half-billion dollars in greenbacks had been issued. The Legal Tender Act laid the foundation for the creation of a permanent currency in the decades after the Civil War.
Today in 1870 Hiram Rhoades Revels, a Republican from Natchez, Mississippi, was sworn into the U.S. Senate, becoming the first black American ever to sit in Congress.
By 1870, all the former Confederate states had been readmitted to the Union, and most were controlled by the Republican Party, thanks in large part to the support of African American voters. On January 20, 1870, Revels was elected by the Mississippi legislature to fill the Senate seat once held by Jefferson Davis. Two days after Mississippi was granted representation in Congress for the first time since it seceded in 1861, Revels was sworn in.
Although black American Republicans never obtained political office in proportion to their overwhelming electoral majority, Revels and some 15 other black men served in Congress during Reconstruction, more than 600 served in state legislatures, and hundreds of African Americans held local offices.
Today in 2004 The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s film about the last 44 hours of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, opened in theaters across the United States. Not coincidentally, the day was Ash Wednesday, the start of the Catholic season of Lent.
The star of action-packed blockbusters, Gibson was earning more than $20 million per movie at the time he decided to direct The Passion of the Christ, for which he received no cash compensation. Largely based on the 18th-century diaries of Saint Anne Catherine Emmerich, the film was a true labor of love for Gibson, who later told Time magazine that he had “a deep need to tell this story…The Gospels tell you what basically happened; I want to know what really went down.” He scouted locations in Italy himself, and had the script translated from English into Aramaic (thought to be Jesus’ first language) and Latin by a Jesuit scholar. Gibson’s original intention was to show The Passion of the Christ without subtitles, in an attempt to “transcend the language barriers with visual storytelling,” as he later explained. With dialogue entirely in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic, the film was eventually released with subtitles.
A year before The Passion of the Christ was released, controversy flared over whether it was anti-Semitic. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went on record saying that Gibson’s film “could fuel hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism.” Gibson categorically denied the allegations of anti-Semitism, but they continued to haunt him years after the film’s release. In July 2006, he was arrested for driving under the influence; a leaked police report of the incident stated that Gibson made anti-Semitic remarks to the arresting officer. Gibson later acknowledged the report’s accuracy, and publicly apologized for the remarks.
Meanwhile, Christian critics of the film’s story pointed to its departure from the New Testament and its reliance on works other than the Bible, such as Emmerich’s diaries.
Gibson, who put millions of his own money into the project, initially had trouble finding a distributor for the film. Its debut in surprised many by becoming a huge hit at the box office. It also continued to fuel the fires of controversy, earning harsh criticism for its extreme violence and gore–much of the film focuses on the brutal beating of Jesus prior to his crucifixion–which many saw as overkill. The film critic Roger Ebert called The Passion of the Christ “the most violent film I have ever seen.” Gibson’s response to similar charges was that such a reaction was intentional. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he claimed: “I wanted it to be shocking. And I wanted it to be extreme…. So that they see the enormity, the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule.”
Today in 1971 both houses of Congress initiated legislation to forbid U.S. military support of any South Vietnamese invasion of North Vietnam without congressional approval. This legislation was a result of the controversy that arose after the invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese forces in Operation Lam Son.
Although the only direct U.S. support permitted was long-range cross-border artillery fire from firebases in South Vietnam, fixed-wing air strikes, and 2,600 helicopters to airlift Saigon troops and supplies, President Richard Nixon’s critics condemned the invasion. Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator J. William Fulbright (D-Arkansas) declared the Laotian invasion illegal under the terms of the repeal of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the president only the mandate to end the war.