When you take an assignment as a freelance writer, you write that story. Never would you pitch an idea, then come back to the editor to tell them you can't do it. Unless, that is, you were trying to write a travel story about the legacy of Muhammad Ali in Louisville.
My idea, for the travel section of a big newspaper, was a piece that might inspire Ali fans to head to my city of Louisville. The champ was born here in 1942, so it's natural that the millions who revere the man might journey to his hometown. They could see the house where he grew up and follow an Ali trail of sorts through his developing years. It sounded good in the email, and the editor gave me the thumbs up.
I led the nascent story with a line from Ali himself:
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.
Thunderous applause greeted these words from Muhammad Ali when he spoke them in his hometown in 1978.
Everybody has to come from somewhere, but for Louisvillians, it's an immense source of pride that the champ, the Greatest, Muhammad Ali himself grew up here. That before this living legend shook up the world he was once a kid named Cassius Clay playing in the West End.
The trouble was, I wasn't so sure my words were true. I patched together a limping, scattered story, but couldn't bring myself to file it. Instead, I sent the editor an apology: "After a summer of researching, reading, talking to (many) people, and going all over town, the result is a story that not a single person would read and want to come to Louisville."
See, I'd found that most places significant in Ali's life were unmarked, abandoned, or demolished.
I'd tried. The story encouraged “intrepid” visitors to hunt down Ali's past – going to the park where he ran, touring the building where he had his first job – and included details like how he loved Krispy Kreme on Bardstown Road, but only when the sign is on to say they're fresh.
But what of that would compel anyone to board a plane for Louisville? The city-owned park – which was one of only a few in Louisville open to African Americans until 1955 – had no signage to pay homage to the future boxing champion's runs. Would anyone really arrange time with an archivist to see the library where the young man worked (and fell asleep after workouts)? It was a stretch — I was grasping at straws to conjure up a story that didn't exist.
But I just so wanted it to exist – I wanted to find Ali's legacy. Like so many, I've found inspiration in his bravery, his relentless pursuit of what is right, his refusal to bow down to anyone. And we humans are driven to find a connection, no matter how fleeting, with those we admire.
Ali himself understood the pull of connecting with a legend. In Thomas Hauser's “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” we see Cassius Clay, Sr. take his young son to a tree that boxing great Joe Louis touched. Ali marveled that he could place his own hand on something once touched by the great man. Connecting today with Ali's history and legacy in the city where he laughed and dreamed and fought and played should be as easy as reaching out to touch that tree. But as I scoured our city, the trails I sought lead to dead ends.
Sure, there's the shiny Ali Center. It's excellent, a lovely testament to the man's life. But what about Ali's early years? People travel from around the world and hand over fistfuls of money to tour Graceland in Memphis, to push up against ropes surrounding rooms where Elvis lived. The modest home where Muhammad Ali grew up, meanwhile, was deteriorating. I told a couchsurfer from Slovakia who overnighted at my home that I could show him Ali's old house, and he couldn't believe his luck. On our way to the Greyhound station I drove him by the house. As this 26-year-old who'd grown up a world away – and long after Ali's triumphs – snapped photos, I cringed at the broken-down house.
"Don't bother your head about that house,” a brash 19-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay said to a Sports Illustrated reporter in 1961. “One of these days they're liable to make it a national shrine."
On that morning in 2014, though, the dilapidated house stood vacant, only a plaque at the street noting that anything important happened here. It took a team of investors from out of state to right this wrong, and only days before Ali's death did the Muhammad Ali Childhood Home museum finally open. The champ was right in the end. But was he really, though?
My city celebrates many things well. We love our bourbon and we entice tourists with bourbon trails galore. Our food scene is gaining national recognition, we have a “Hot Brown Hop,” and then of course there's that horse race every May. Yes, all of these things are like the other: we're talking about pastimes traditionally enjoyed by white folks of the south with money to spend. But you know what we haven't celebrated – I mean really celebrated? (At least not until now that he's gone, as the flowers pile up like the words of city leaders rushing to praise him.) The life of a strong black man who spoke his mind. Where is our Ali trail? The obligatory, accessible, downtown museum is our one and done.
Ali's hero Joe Louis was beloved in Detroit like our champ was to many of us. I thought Louis' hometown legacy was headed the same way as Ali's when his longtime training center, the Brewster Wheeler building, was slated for demolition. Then, enter Kid Rock. The musician had a friend who wanted to open a restaurant at the site and preserve the building. In a city where getting street lights is a challenge and dangerous abandoned structures are razed daily, they saved the building. “When this redevelopment is completed, we will have a facility that honors the legacy of Joe Louis, Leon Wheeler and so many others, and re-establishes its connection to the community,” mayor Mike Duggan said. (Wheeler was the city’s first African-American recreation worker.) "It's important that we remember our history and we celebrate it.”
There was no such celebrity fanfare to keep a similar monument to Ali's early training, the Presbyterian Community Center (formerly known as the Grace Hope Community Center), open to the community when the Smoketown neighborhood institution closed in 2013. A historian might be able to point out the location, but its significance wouldn't be clear to the casual visitor. (The public school system now owns the building, where it operates an early childhood education program.)
Could it be because we're ashamed? We should be. After the Olympic champion returned home from taking the 1960 gold he was turned away from a restaurant. We may never know if the legend of Ali tossing his medal in the Ohio River after that humiliation is true, but if he did it, who can blame him? More local lore has it that a prestigious private club, the kind patronized by wealthy civic leaders, refused for years to change the address on their letterhead after the street was renamed for Muhammad Ali. I'd make like Ali and leave town, too. Because, of course, it's not just Ali's legacy that isn't tangible in Louisville. Ali himself moved away long ago.
Now that he's gone for good, we're honoring Ali, loudly and publicly. And for many it is sincere. But why does it come when he's a memory, not a man? Why bring flowers to his home now, but not care when weeds were growing up in front of the house he thought would be a shrine?
Louisville had a hard time knowing how to deal with Muhammad Ali, this peace-loving fighter, a proud Muslim who dared to tell the world he was the greatest, who defied expectations of the time when he refused to take up arms against a people he had no quarrel with. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” he famously asked. Many in Louisville could never forgive that.
We may like to think now the time is gone that someone would be turned away for the color of their skin. But if enough people have their way, we'll have a president who will do more than refuse people service at a restaurant; he'll turn them from our borders. My heartbreak at waking to a world without Muhammad Ali is compounded by going to sleep in a world where morning may find Donald Trump in the White House. Louisville is but a reflection of the world that was and that is, a world that is uneasy with power in those that are other.
Now all eyes are turning to Louisville and I wish I could try the travel story again. Not with a trail of artifacts to follow this time, but with Ali's living legacy, that of a city where many strive – more quietly than Ali, but with no less dedication – for love and equality. A place dubbed a compassionate city, where we hold a Festival of Faiths (with the organizer's office on Muhammad Ali Blvd!), where a pay-it-forward restaurant is thriving not far from where Ali grew up.
But is that story any better than the first one I tried? Where does the confederate monument standing within eyesight of our gleaming new art museum fit in that story? A couple thousand people have signed a petition to replace it with a statue of Ali, but how many more would rather keep their symbol of “heritage”? Where in that story can I point to a real commitment in Possibility City to transformation in Ali's old stomping grounds and beyond? Sure, parks are no longer segregated but our city as a whole remains starkly divided by race and income. Where can I show a true effort by city leaders to remove barriers to opportunity for all when we've yet to elect a black or female mayor? As I grieve for this man I never met, I mourn, too, for the city he wanted us to be.
Here's what I want to remember when I join the world this Friday at Ali's memorial. Ali faced the worst in people, and gave them back the best. No matter how profound the cost, he stood fast to his beliefs — that all deserve respect and love. He wasn't showered with love in his city, yet he showered unending love on humanity. His truest legacy is not found in buildings or historical markers, but in the mark he made on our hearts — in Louisville and around the world.
Ali gave our undeserving city a gift: testimony to what we can find within ourselves. We didn't do it in his lifetime, but it's not too late to become more than the city of his birth, more than the city that shunned a hero. We can honor his memory beyond words and flowers. We can commit to continue his work. We can earn the right to call ourselves the home of the Greatest.
“The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up,” Ali said, and I woke up today to find a sliver of my dream come true. The city of Louisville has rolled out a website that's a start at recognizing the (remaining) sites important to Ali's legacy. Ali's Louisville, “devoted to all things Ali in his hometown,” collects several of the touchpoints I sought for that first, failed travel story. It's just too bad it took a funeral to get us here. I hope it's only the beginning of what we do in Ali's memory.