Adopting Sonny Liston

By George Thomas Clark on July 11, 2013
Adopting Sonny Liston
“Please let the boy have a chance," I pleaded. "You can visit whenever you want. I promise.”

For fifteen years my wife Ellen and I, Memphis educators both, tried quite hard to have a child. Our failure to conceive was alternately attributed, by purported experts, to my sterility and her barrenness. Perhaps both reports were correct. We did not argue. We decided to adopt. Paperwork and prejudice at local agencies compelled us on a summer afternoon in 1935 to drive into eastern Arkansas where, in St. Francis County, we quite accidentally pulled onto wretched land marred by a shack in front of which a stocky and rather aged sharecropper used a long stick to whip the back of a young boy.

Out of my car I bounded to demand, “Stop this at once.”

“Want some, too?”

“No, sir, I believe I’d like to give the boy a decent home.”

“Take him. Had twelve by my first wife and thirteen by thisun. Don’t need so many kids.”

“Tobe,” yelled a much younger woman. “Sonny’s not leaving.”

“You’ve been threatenin’ to leave for years, so when you do I’ll be takin’ care of the boy.”

His mother hugged Sonny, whose back was scarred well as bleeding from fresh wounds, and I approached and whispered, “Please, let the boy have a chance. You can visit whenever you want. I promise.”

Crying, she nodded.

“How old’s the boy?” Ellen asked.

“Probably about seven.”

“Sonny’s his given name?”

“It’s Charles,” she said.

“Charles, you’re going to have a new home,” I said, and he rode home between my wife and me. We worked out the legalities with the Listons soon as we could.

That fall Charles, who couldn’t read the alphabet, had to start in first grade. My wife and I not merely helped him with homework, we read stories to him, we showed him pictures in the newspaper, we took him to church, we entertained and were hosted by other families, we encouraged him to play games outside with nice boys in our middle-class neighborhood of Negro professionals.

In less than two years Charles was reading at his age level and moved up to the appropriate grade. Ellen and I were relieved, and for more than academic reasons. The boy was growing fast. At age thirteen he was bigger and stronger than most men. Like all boys, he got into occasional scraps but we disciplined him: no play time for a couple of days and five hundred word essays. He hated those but wrote pretty well. His mother, Betty, visited twice and seemed happy for her boy before she took some of her kids and moved to St. Louis.

In high school Charles maintained a B average, starred on the baseball and football teams, and dreamed of being a professional. We said there weren’t any like us. Some roughneck adults tried to convince him to box, said a youngster that strong, with bulging arms, could win a fortune. We always ran them off. Our son was going to college, Tennessee State, our alma mater.

Charles earned good grades in college but sometimes got drunk at parties and beat guys up. I knew drinking ran in the Liston family.

“Charles, please don’t drink,” we urged him. “Accept you can’t handle it.”

“I’ll try, Mom and Dad, I promise.”

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Biography Featuring Sonny Liston



Sports Century:Sonny Liston (full broadcast) Part 1/4

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  1. George Thomas Clark 09:50am, 07/18/2013

    SonnyListonMichael77 - Your logic sounds pretty good - if Liston had broken a leg, wouldn’t his enemies (the St. Louis police) have put him away?  I’d like to think Sonny ceased being a thug after becoming a prominent fighter.  Still, I have a feeling he was heading the wrong way in the months preceding his death.

  2. sonnylistonmichael77 06:09pm, 07/17/2013

    Mike Silver, The late Jack McKinney and I agree that there is not creditable evidence accept word of mouth bs over the years handed down from a man with a fedora and a cigar he never smoked that Liston ever broke anyone’s leg.  If you look at the FBI file, All of those so called arrests were after the Thomas Mellow incident Such horrible crimes as gambling ; pitching nickels against a wall and standing on a street corner. Do you honestly expect us to believe that the St Louis Police who hated him with a hatred so intense that it was palpable would not want to put him away for good having “broken someone’s leg” there is no creditableprove able evidence for this charge. I’ve been a Liston fan since I was 8 years old in1964   I know quite a lot about Sonny, and I did not get my information from a funny man with a fedora and a hat who by the way hated Liston.  Michael Ares

  3. Mike Silver 10:23pm, 07/11/2013

    Great idea GTC. Had to smile at this fantasy. Sonny was a thug but not stupid. The old leg breaker would have made a great doctor.

  4. George Thomas Clark 12:43pm, 07/11/2013

    Good question, Joe.  Ali did a number on Sonny’s psyche, but Sonny already had a load of demons and would take on more.

  5. Joe 10:29am, 07/11/2013

    Charles had one of the most devastating jabs int he biz.  His right hand looked vicious as well.  That whuppin he put on Eddie Machen was something to see; but give Machen credit he could take it. 

    I wonder how many guys Charles would have chopped down if he hadn’t run into Ali.

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