Life after Death in Louisville

This post is the fifth post in our Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali Series guest edited by Andrew R.M. Smith. Muhammad Ali was a complex figure and he had a large influence beyond the United States. The goal of these posts is to explore various aspects of Ali’s life and reflect on his legacies, offering insight into understudied themes and periods. 

By Stephen Townsend

Maya Angelou once said that Muhammad Ali belonged to everyone, but Louisville perhaps has a greater claim to him than anywhere else. Ali was born in Louisville, in 1942 – he was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. back then. The young Cassius Clay was taught his two most important lessons in Louisville: how to box, and how to recognize inequality. He watched as his mother went to work as a domestic for a rich white family across town. He knew there were certain parks, shops, and clubs in which he was not welcome, and he saw his own West-End neighborhood stagnate under the yoke of generational poverty. He also knew that there was a sharper, more violent side to American racism, especially in the South. The unconscionable murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi terrified young Clay in September 1955, and Cassius himself had a smattering of run-ins with Louisville’s more virulent racists.

Despite this, Ali loved his hometown. He returned to Louisville frequently to visit family and spoke of Louisville in honorific terms,

Wherever I go I tell ’em I’m from Louisville. I don’t want Chicago or New York or Texas to take the credit for all of what I’ve done. I want you to know … that we in Louisville are the greatest of all time.

The special relationship between Ali and his hometown became a great source of pride for Louisville, particularly after his death on June 3, 2016. Ali died in Phoenix, and had lived away from Louisville for most of his professional career, but it was his expressed wish that he should be laid to rest in the city of his birth. In the days following his death, commentary from Louisvillians sought to affirm their connection with the champ, citing the role that the city played in shaping Ali. U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said of Ali, “His life story is an American story, and it’s a story that began in Louisville, Kentucky.”[1] Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer believed that “The values of hard work, conviction and compassion that Muhammad Ali developed while growing up in Louisville helped him become a global icon.” Others viewed the champ as a source of inspiration for a city that rarely attracts attraction outside of the Kentucky Derby. Louisville’s black citizens, who live in one of the most segregated African American communities in the country, spoke particularly fondly of Ali. Mourners gathered at a service outside the Muhammad Ali Center said that “he represents that greatness came from Louisville,” and that his legacy is “really major here in Louisville…now I feel like I have a duty to do something to impact this world because of him.”[2]

The connection between Ali and Louisville was not contrived as a result of his passing. The city, and Ali himself, actively fostered this relationship for many years. The Muhammad Ali Center, an $80 million museum opened in 2005, goes to great efforts to promote his legacy and places special emphasis on the influence that an upbringing in Louisville had upon shaping the champ’s hatred of racism.[3] The Clay family home on Grand Avenue has also been restored and operates as a museum, and the main thoroughfare in town was renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard in the late 70s.[4] However, the Louisville-centric thread of the Ali story took on increased importance around the time of his funeral. Ali’s funeral celebrations were set for the 9th and 10th of June, in Louisville. For fans, journalists, and admirers, this was a chance not just to bid farewell to Ali, but perhaps also to glimpse the foundations of his greatness. Journalists from across the world descended upon Louisville for what was to be “the biggest day in Louisville’s 238-year history.”[5]

There were the obligatory interviews with childhood neighbors, sound bites from civic leaders, and vox-pops from mourning citizens. Some of these stories were hoping (impossibly) to reveal the “real” Muhammad Ali. Others tried to get a grasp upon what Ali meant to his hometown in order to better explain the significance of his burial in Louisville. International news outlets also seemed particularly interested in showing a piece of middle America to viewers who probably weren’t familiar with much of the USA outside of New York or Los Angeles. The Clay family home was a focal point for the coverage – it provided viewers with a taste of Ali’s childhood and also a window into a “forgotten” or “invisible” piece of America.[6] The house is located in “Louisville’s economically depressed, ‘hyper-segregated’ West End.”[7] The small weatherboard restoration at 3302 Grand Avenue has changed little since Ali’s childhood, and neither has the surrounding neighborhood. The days of Jim Crow are gone, but its legacy is felt sharply in Louisville’s West End. Interviews with locals revealed the area’s problems with drug use, chronic disease, entrenched poverty, and gun violence – all linked to a history of segregation.[8]

Coverage of Ali’s funeral in Louisville began to incorporate these perspectives, and took on a more nuanced character. The celebratory narrative of Ali’s relationship with Louisville remained, but the city was also painted as an allegory for the broader injustices that the champ fought against throughout his entire life. Ali’s battle against racism and injustice at a national level was supposedly doubly meaningful back in Louisville, the place that sparked his activist fire. A June 6 article in the Guardian argued that, from a racial perspective, Ali’s triumph was Louisville’s triumph,

the established order, the granters of gold medals and diner seats – would be revealed as a fragile, glass-jawed opponent by Louisville’s brash young man… By the time he finished, he had changed the Louisville of his youth – a segregated, provincial city – for good.[9]

For those familiar with Ali, or familiar with American race-relations more generally, this is hardly revelatory. Although he was only peripherally involved in localized campaigns for equality in Louisville, he often used his hometown to explain the motives and beliefs that underpinned his activism. Most famously, he asked why he should be required to “drop bullets and bombs on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs.”[10] The connections that journalists made between segregation in Louisville and Ali’s broader struggles against racism were important. This narrative also offered a break from the barrage of inspirational quotes and montages that many news outlets aired instead of analyzing the significance of his life.

However, even this more nuanced vision of Ali was overly simplistic. Throughout the coverage of the memorial celebrations, journalists conceptualized Ali’s relationship with his hometown in black and white terms (quite literally). He was positioned as the champion of black Louisville, a lone hero standing against the white establishment. Journalists described white Louisville’s consternation with Ali in the 1960s, recalling white civic leaders who had a “hard time knowing how to deal with Muhammad Ali,” because he was a “threat to social order.”[11] This vision of Ali is only partially complete. Ali did challenge the white establishment, but he also challenged the black establishment. Particularly during the mid 1960s, Ali was just as polarizing amongst black Americans as he was amongst whites. He was young. He was a braggart. He was a black nationalist. He was a Muslim, and he vehemently criticized the Civil Rights Movement. He ridiculed established black leaders for asking whites to be allowed into their shops, neighborhoods, and institutions. Further more, his Islamic faith was highly controversial amongst a strongly Christian black population. In the mid 60s, these qualities earned Ali the ire of black America, not their admiration.

This held true for the black population in Louisville too. Older, moderate, Christian, activists who believed firmly in integration dominated black advocacy in 1960s Louisville, as they did in many locations across the country.[12] Men like Frank L. Stanley, who ran the city’s black newspaper and was a noted civil rights activist, led the Louisville ‘black-lash’ against Ali. In 1964, his newspaper (the Louisville Defender) labelled Ali “pitifully ignorant,” and “not my champion” on the basis of his joining the Nation of Islam.[13] When Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, the paper “deeply regret that Clay has chosen not to bear arms for his country.”[14] The reasons for the Louisville Defender’s rebuke of Ali are far too complex to discuss in depth here.[15] It suffices to say, however, that the men who ran the Defender represented the middle-class black establishment who had been leading the civil rights movement for decades. Ali’s beliefs on how best to achieve black equality were almost antithetical to the views of the black establishment in Louisville, and across America.

This vital part of Ali’s story went unexplored during the coverage of his funeral in Louisville. Journalists focused on the divide between white and black Louisville, which is a compelling narrative. However, they ignored, or were not aware of, the divides that Ali caused within the black community. Dr Kevin Cosby, a prominent Louisvillian who spoke at Ali’s massive public funeral, alluded to this in an interview with the Huffington Post. He argued that journalists were in “great danger of making Muhammad Ali our convenient hero…to do that minimizes the courage of Muhammad Ali, and the purpose of his pronouncements.”[16] The media’s habit of portraying a simpler version of Ali was not confined to coverage of Ali’s Louisville funeral however. Outlets from across the United States, and across the world, were happy to engage with Ali’s stand against with the white establishment, but shied away from the messier, more complex narrative of his conflicts with moderate black leaders. This is due, in part, to Ali’s changing image over the past two decades. As he aged, and lost the ability to communicate, Ali slowly transformed from a firebrand activist, to a Zen-like figure of global unity and peace. This image of Ali is useful, but it’s shallow. The meaning of Ali lies somewhere in an impossibly complex nexus of faith, arrogance, virtue, compassion, violence, pride, determination, lyricism, and autonomy. Many have tried to see beyond the complexities, to uncover some sort of simple truth, an easily digestible vision of the “real Ali”. This is an impossible, and fruitless task. The best way to understand Ali is to embrace the messy, ugly, complex elements of his legacy. In the words of Dave Zirin, who wrote about Ali for the Los Angeles Times in the 60s and 70s, we must “remember what made him so dangerous in the first place.”[17]

Stephen Townsend is a PhD student at the University of Queensland (Australia), in the School of Human Movement Studies. He can be reached at s.townsend@uq.edu.au.

Notes:


[1] WHAS11 Staff, “Ky. Officials react to Muhammad Ali’s death,” WHAS11 ABD [online], June 5, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.whas11.com/news/local/ky-officials-react-to-muhammad-alis-death/231389897.
[2] Charli James, Emily Shapiro, David Caplan, “Louisville Honors Hometown Hero Muhammad Ali: ‘He Represents That Greatness Came From Louisville,’” ABC News [online], June 4, 2016, retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/US/muhammad-alis-hometown-louisville-pays-tribute-boxing-legend/story?id=39606769
[3] James A. Throgmorton, “Inventing the Greatest: Crafting Louisville’s Future out of Story and Clay,” Planning Theory 6 (no. 3, 2007): 243.
[4] Formerly Walnut Street.
[5] Chris Leadbeater, “Remembering Muhammad Ali in Louisville”, The Telegraph [online], June 9, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/north-america/united-states/articles/louisville-what-to-do-in-muhammad-ali-hometown/
[6] Jessica Lussenhop, “The legacy of segregation in Muhammad Ali’s hometown,” BBC News Magazine [online], June 9, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36472454; Tracy Clayton, “Here’s What Muhammad Ali Meant To Black Louisville Natives Like Me,” Buzzfeed News Reader [online], June 28, 2016, retrieved from: https://www.buzzfeed.com/tracyclayton/ali-loved-louisville-and-louisville-loves-ali?utm_term=.uw9PWjY8B#.fqxaRVEJ2;
[7] Lussenhop, “The Legacy of Segregation in Muhammad Ali’s hometown,” BBC News Magazine [online].
[8] Ibid.
[9] Matthew Teague, “Louisville, forever changed by Muhammad Ali, prepares to bury him,” The Guardian [online], June 6, 2016, retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/jun/05/muhammad-ali-hometown-louisville-memorial
[10] Mike Marqusee, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (2nd ed. London, 1999), 214.
[11] Dana McMahon, “Muhammad Ali’s hometown heartbreak: I went looking for Ali’s Louisville, and it wasn’t there,” Salon [online], June 7, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.salon.com/2016/06/06/muhammad_alis_hometown_heartbreak_i_went_looking_for_alis_louisville_and_it_wasnt_there/; Robert Moore, “Louisville’s finest: Muhammad Ali’s hometown hails the boxer’s legacy,” ITV News [online], June 4, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.itv.com/news/2016-06-04/louisvilles-finest-muhammad-alis-hometown-hails-the-boxers-legacy/
[12] Tracey K’Meyer, “The Gateway to the South: Regional Identity and the Louisville Civil Rights Movement,” Ohio Valley History 4 (Spring, 2004).
[13] Cecil Blye, “Writer Calls Cassius’ Black Muslim Antics Phony,” Louisville Defender, February 6, 1964; Alfred Duckett, “Patterson Was Ideal Champion,” Louisville Defender, March 19, 1964.
[14] Frank L. Stanley, “Is Religion a Last Resort?” Louisville Defender, Feb. 24, 1966.
[15] See Stephen Townsend, “Floating Like a Butterfly” Shifting Perceptions of Muhammad Ali in Louisville’s Black Press,” Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 2017 (in press).
[16] Travis Waldron, “This is Muhammad Ali’s Louisville,” The Huffington Post, June 24, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/muhammad-ali-death-louisville_us_57693df9e4b0fbbc8beba103?section=australia
[17] Dave Zirin, “Don’t remember Muhammad Ali as a sanctified sports hero. He was a powerful, dangerous political force,” Los Angeles Times [online], June 4, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-zirin-muhammad-ali-legacy-20160603-snap-story.html

One thought on “Life after Death in Louisville

  1. Pingback: Series Overview – Life and Legacy of Muhammad Ali | Sport in American History

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