Ali and America: A complicated legacy

Allen Abel reports from Louisville, Ky., the birthplace of Muhammad Ali—the most important athlete of all time.

Louisville mayor Greg Fischer speaks at a community memorial service to Muhammad Ali outside his childhood home, rear centre, Monday, June 6, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Two weeks ago, in the middle of the night, someone drove a car down the narrow, grassy alley that runs behind the houses in the 4000 block of River Park Drive on the west side of Louisville, Ky. The car stopped, and the still-warm corpses of two very young men named Larry and Reese—born in 2002 and 2000, respectively—were removed from the back and carefully lain, side by side, in a tangle of waist-high weeds, so that one boy’s arm was wrapped around the other boy’s shoulder: best friends forever.

The bodies then were set on fire, but they wouldn’t burn; that sort of thing takes time and practice. But the commotion roused the neighbour who lives just west of the derelict lot, a home-care attendant and former Census Bureau clerk named Donna Beasley, and she alerted the authorities and told what she had seen.


“Their bodies weren’t shot,” she remembered, two weeks later. “They were just stabbed to death and beaten up.” Since then, Beasley had taken to mowing the backyard of the abandoned dwelling, lest it be used as a charnel house again, and to tidying the memorial that had been erected there, which, as of Monday, included a crucifix of rough wooden slats, several burned-out tea lights, some plastic roses and an empty bottle of Crown Royal apple-flavoured whisky.

So there was more to mourn in charming Louisville this week than the passing of a heavyweight fighter. Beyond the public rites for a fallen champion, there were humbler memorials to lives lived without lights or adulation, and deaths of other native sons and daughters too sudden and too terrible to comprehend.

“I really wish in my heart that there were more people who took an interest in our young kids,” Beasley sighed. “They need to be told, ‘You have an argument? Let’s settle this in the ring . . . ’ ”

The ring. The boxing ring. The squared circle. That was how it all had started, of course, eight short blocks south of River Park Drive, on a street called Grand Avenue, 60 long years before.

Muhammad Ali at his childhood home. (Globe Photos/ZUMA Press/Alamy)

The legend was this: a puny schoolboy’s bicycle was stolen, and he hungered to punish the perpetrator—to “whup” him, in his words—and he met a sympathetic police officer who taught him how to box, and with his fists and his mouth and his wit and his beauty and his humility in the face of Allah’s omnipotence and his defiance of anything that he perceived as earthly submission or injustice, Muhammad Ali became the most famous man in the world.

(But not the most universally beloved. “I hated that bastard,” a white man said here. “I still do.” And another man, who knew young Cassius Clay, said, “His bike didn’t get stoled—the other way around! He stole the bike.”)

The champion’s fame had not come from sport alone, unlike the celebrity of latter Jordans and Jeters and Jameses, team players all. It had been earned in single combat against 50 fighters just as desperate and brave, and redeemed with terrible damage in the denial of time’s swift arrow, and endured without public complaint, as if in retribution for his conceit and his perfection, in a solitary cell of silence and feebleness for the final 30 years of his 74.

MORE: The ballet and the balladry of Muhammad Ali, the boxer

In 1954, when that bicycle was stolen, no one could have foretold that the slender child from Grand Avenue would become a central figure of the final 40 years of the American Century and the dawning of the Jet Age, a hajji and icon, a poet and prophet, an assassin and an apostle, his life enfolding Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, Black Power, the Olympic Games, the fruit and fallout of Islam, family and fatherhood, devotion and desertion.

Perhaps John Lennon, 15 months older than Ali but still nursing his boyhood stamp collection in Liverpool that same year, would grow up to become an equally influential agent of social and cultural change. But Lennon never was commanded to shoulder a rifle for his Queen and then, at the cost of his music and at the command of his terrible swift God, muster the conviction to refuse.

Unlike John Lennon, Ali could not imagine no religion, above us only sky. “In 30 more years, I’ll be 65,” he once told the BBC. “What will I do with those 30 years? Prepare to meet God!” He meant it. Now they’re sparring in the clouds.

Perhaps Jackie Robinson ennobled his own historic burden with his audacity not to strike back, but Robinson—drafted by a cartel of old white men to break their own indefensible colour bar—did not survive 42 rounds with Joe Frazier, or play the infield in Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur, or turn his back on his country, in thrall to an alien faith.

In this May 25, 1965 file photo, Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw in Lewiston, Maine. (JOHN ROONEY/AP)

Then, last weekend, suddenly, shockingly, as if he had been Rope-a-Doping the Almighty all along, Ali was dead. Now Louisville, and America, were being called to judgment, compelled to show that the life of skinny little Cassius Marcellus Clay from Grand Avenue —namesake of a white Kentucky politician and planter who, in the middle of the 19th century, risked his own life to defend the apostasy that the black man is as human in the sight of Jehovah as the white man—had not been in vain, and that the blows that he suffered had purified his own birthplace, and purged his nation of its primal stain of racial bigotry.

But when a reporter came to Louisville in its week of public and private mourning, and talked to dozens of people of both races, more than one man and woman whispered, “Ain’t nothing changed. Ain’t nothing changed. If anything, it’s got worse.”

“Nothing’s been advanced at all, really,” said Donna Beasley. “There’s still racism, and what makes it so bad is that it’s not closeted anymore. And what’s even worse is that since Obama was elected, they came out of the closet.”

Oh, and the night that Cassius Clay—a few weeks from becoming the 1960 Olympic gold medallist in light-heavyweight boxing—graduated from Louisville’s Central High School, he went out to a joint on 15th Street called the Idle Hour Bar and Grill to celebrate with his brother Rudy, and the two brothers wound up spending the evening with two sisters, and one of them was Donna Beasley.

Small world, eh?

One of the first men who came to gawk at Cassius Clay’s boyhood home on Grand Avenue—it is a fairy-pink little bungalow—on Monday morning was an electrician and U.S. Air Force veteran and photographer whose name, wouldn’t you know it, was Kim Clay. The sun had just come up and the first shift was going to work at the aluminum factory down the street where Reynolds Wrap is made.

There was a historical marker out in front of the house that said: “The Clay family was part of the black middle class of West End Louisville, which was racially separated. Yet here is where young Clay’s values were instilled, transforming him into three-time world champion and world-renowned humanitarian, Muhammad Ali.”

“No relation,” said Kim Clay, “but imagine what I’ve had to put up with my whole life, in addition to having a girl’s first name.”

The memorial jetsam in front of the pink house was an assortment of flowers, stuffed bears, boxing gloves, and Finding Nemo balloons.

“I’ve only been in Louisville for four years, but I notice it’s very segregated,” Kim Clay observed. “Has anything been advanced? A lot has changed but the racist stuff is still the same.” (Clay’s observations were borne out by the facts. According to a federally funded report published in 2014, 45 per cent of Louisville residents live in what is officially designated “extreme segregation,” with 95 per cent of their proximate neighbours being of the same race, be it black or white.)

“We still don’t have the opportunities that we should have,” Kim Clay said. “We don’t value our youth and our families anymore. We’ve lost a lot, we’ve gone backward. The only thing different today is that if a kid gets his bike stolen, he gets a gun and kills the other kid. Then he gets locked up and we have just another black kid in prison and just another black kid dead and that’s the end of it.”

“What’s the answer?”

“I think the answer is God.”

Mohammed Ali Shows The Heavyweight Belt. 1964. (Marka/EyeOn/UIG/Getty Images)

One of the first women who came to gawk at Cassius Clay’s boyhood home on Grand Avenue was a neighbourhood grandmother whose name, wouldn’t you know it, was Gwendolyn Clay.

She was a relation, through her grandfather and Cassius’s. “He was faithful in what he done,” Clay said of her famous cousin. “He knew what he wanted to achieve, and he set out to do it, and he done it.”

“Thou hast been faithful over a few things,” a reporter began, quoting Matthew 25.

“And I will make you ruler over many more,” Gwen Clay followed on.

“I have a son who has been incarcerated,” she said. “A disobedient, hard-headed, rebellious boy.”

“Did he ever get his bicycle stolen?”

“No, but I’m sure he stoled some himself!”

“What does your cousin’s life have to teach you and your son and all of us?”

“It makes us see what a lot of time we already lost,” Cassius Clay’s cousin said.

Muhammad Ali speaking to Muslims, holding a book called Towards Understanding Islam written by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi. Circa May 1966. (Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy)

Muhammad Ali’s body was reposing at the A. D. Porter & Sons funeral home southeast of downtown Louisville, awaiting two days of private Islamic ritual and burial and public procession and presidential adoration. The mortuary was located on a suburban highway, between the Fiesta Mexicana restaurant and the headquarters of the Kosair chapter of what used to be known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Nine years after 9-11, that had been condensed to “the Shriners,” but the tasselled fezzes remained, and the paintings in the Kosair hallways of caravans of camels crossing the burning sands of Araby.

“A lot of people think we are Islams, but we’re not, no sir,” a Shriner named Danny Duvall from Beaver Dam, Ky., was saying, surrounded by a ferocious bevy of stuffed toy tigers, plus two other Shriners in the Kosair circus office.

“Do you remember when Ali refused to go into the army?” the men were asked.

“That’s what I always kind of held against him,” Duvall said. “I was never drafted myself, but I woulda definitely went if they had called me. If he had gone in like Elvis did, he never would have fought. They would have gave him a clerical job and he’d box exhibitions on the weekends.”

“When he refused to be drafted, you kind of wondered if he was sincere about being Muslim,” said a man named Charlie Boston, who had volunteered for the National Guard but never saw combat. “If he was, that’s fine. When he got the gold medal fighting for America and he came back to Louisville and he tried to sit down at a restaurant and they wouldn’t serve him, and he threw that gold medal off the Second Street Bridge, you have to think about what that does to a man. And after he became a champion, you think about all the good that he did.”

“If you’re born in this country, stay American,” Duvall countered. “If you don’t like this country, then go to where Islam’s at.”

Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, behind soda fountain, joking with tux-clad Muhammad Ali (R), who responds with mock indignation while surrounded by jubilant fans after he beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. (Bob Gomel/LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

It was more of the same at the big Veterans Administration hospital across town, a white ex-Marine named Gene Armes straddling his blue Harley-Davidson and saying, “I hated that bastard,” and that “he shoulda done like Elvis. Nobody who was somebody did nothing dangerous once they got in.”

“He had the right to do what he did,” argued a black vet of the same Vietnam vintage, Walter Smith. “A lot of blacks were being sent to the front lines. A lot of people didn’t like him. We don’t know that he would have been like Elvis.”

Back at the Kosair Shrine, a Louisvillian named Kenny Holthouser said that he had hung around the boxing gym, back when that fable about young Cassius and the stolen bike was getting started. He said, “When he came to fight in the Golden Gloves, he was as quiet as a mouse. But put a camera in his face—motormouth.”

The three Shriners all were white men, of course. “The African-Americans have their own clubs in Louisville,” they explained.

“It’s 2016. Why don’t you join black and white together and become one shrine?” the men were asked.

“You’re asking something I don’t have a clue about,” said Duvall.

Muhammad Ali checks his fan ail with his mother Odessa at their Louisville, Kentucky, home, circa around 1965. (Pictorial Press/Alamy)

Two years ago, a 16-month-old baby named Ne’riah Miller was sitting on her mother’s lap on their front porch a few blocks from Muhammad Ali’s childhood home when about half a dozen men rolled up and began shouting and firing handguns. The mother was wounded. Ne’riah died.

“That was my baby cousin,” Shenita Rickman was saying now, and wiping away tears.

This was in Rickman’s office at a faith-based community-service centre on the “racially separated” west side of Louisville. After decades of volunteerism, Rickman had decided to make her first attempt to gain elective office, as a state senator from Kentucky’s 33rd district. As an African-American Republican, a species almost as rare as black Kosair Shriners, she was unlikely to prevail.

But this prospect did not faze her; she called herself “blessed and highly favoured,” and professed her faith that the Holy Trinity would carry her through. In minutes, one of Kentucky’s two Republican U.S. Senators, Dr. Rand Paul, was due to drop by and shake some hands.

“What is the answer to the violence?” candidate Rickman was asked. She, too, had known Muhammad Ali as a friend and neighbour, and she said that he had taught her that “he who is not courageous to take a risk will accomplish nothing in life.”

“Every church needs to bring in more law enforcement and go door to door, street to street, and take the guns away,” Rickman demanded. “When Jesus walked the land, he wasn’t sitting in a building. He went out.”

Rickman blamed the plight of West Louisville squarely on the Democratic Party. “A lot of minds have been under false pretenses since the 18th century,” she said.

“What about the new trinity of Rickman, Paul, and Trump?” the office-seeker was asked. “Is that the answer?”

“At this time I choose not to answer,” she replied.

A mural of Muhammad Ali decorates the side of a downtown building Tuesday, June 7, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. In a city accustomed to capturing the world’s attention for just two minutes during the Kentucky Derby each year, Ali’s memorial service Friday looms as one of the most historic events in Louisville’s history. Former presidents, heads of nations from around the globe, movie stars and sports greats will descend upon the city to pay final respects to The Louisville Lip. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

To a tourist, this is an attractive city, its central core clean and lively, famed for the Kentucky Derby and its namesake baseball bats and Cardinal college basketball and, of course, as the birthplace and now the resting place of Muhammad Ali, if such an athletic ghost, freed from its mortal debilities, ever will rest for an instant. There is much to see and a lot to drink, and at the beautifully conserved old Brown Hotel, if you are not an observant Muslim, you can order an “Ali’s Smash” made from Kentucky bourbon, lemon, mint and pomegranate liqueur.

It has been 55 years since the cyclone that swept a searching young man from Christianity to Islam cleansed downtown Louisville of its whites-only movie theaters and its old, overtly hateful ways. Walking downtown, you find plaques that commemorate the “Nothing New For Easter” boycotts of 1961, the sit-ins and marches, the basic freedoms grudgingly conceded, as if the struggle were all in the past, as if there was no Larry or Reese or Ne’riah.

Just south of the central business district, a whitewashed old warehouse off Interstate 65 has been repurposed as a boxing club called TKO. Here, last Monday evening, the story of Cassius Clay, rather than concluding, began again.

There were 15 small boys—and little girls! —in the ring, cocooned in pillowy headgear, swatting each other with zest and expertise. They were black and white and all the races swirled together. Their instructor was a one-eyed, self-taught, 42-year-old man named James Dixon—he lost his left eye in a car wreck caused by a drunk driver—and Dixon said, “You either lay down and get counted out, or you stand up and get counted on.”

He was full of pithy wisdom, this Dixon—“no hooks before books” was the way he expressed his insistence that all of his little Louisville sluggers maintain good grades in class if they want to keep whupping each other after school.

The poorer kids, the coach said, paid nothing to be here. He estimated that 75 per cent of them were being raised by a single parent. Outside the ring, where these kids came from, “they walk past bullcrap every day.”

Aldo Garcia, 19, left, spars with James Dixon, head coach at Louisville TKO Boxing, a local boxing gym near where Muhammad Ali used to train Monday, June 6, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

A Golden Gloves champion named Braxton Carter represented them; he was 30 and had spent much of his life behind bars. “Just drugs and guns, nothing special,” Carter smiled. He said that he had promised himself and the judge and God that, if he was granted parole, he would devote himself to the next generation of fighters.

And Dixon said, “See? This is more powerful than the streets.”

“I have modelled my gym after Muhammad Ali’s principles,” the coach avowed. Boxing’s ethos was simple, and the great champion’s life was its testament: that it is possible to find brotherhood, even in dispute; that a real man can fight and love. (“You have an argument? Let’s settle this in the ring . . .”)

But the children were too young to have witnessed this philosophy in action, to have seen the most famous man in the world in his slashing prime and in his trembling dotage, dodging punches, feinting and shuffling, firing jabs, preaching understanding, embracing the brothers who destroyed him, just as the world embraced him and now was weeping him home.

“How do you explain to them who Muhammad Ali was?” Dixon was asked, and there was the sound of leather on leather.

He answered, “You don’t have to. Do you have to explain Abraham Lincoln?”