I grew up in the “City of Ali.”
A busy street leading from downtown Louisville, Ky., to the West End where Cassius Clay was born and raised is named Muhammad Ali Boulevard. There once was a huge portrait of him hanging on the facade of a building along with the title “Louisville’s Ali.” And just last month the city said it would rename the airport after its most famous son.
But the truth is, Ali was not always revered. Not in our hometown. Not in America.
He was a boisterous and cocky fighter who converted to a controversial form of Islam. In 1966, his religious beliefs, coupled with his opposition to the Vietnam War, led Ali to refuse to fight in the military when he was drafted.
Ali was called a traitor and an extremist. The heavyweight champion was banned from boxing at the height of his career. But he wouldn’t be quieted.
The “Louisville Lip” remained confident and unapologetic. He didn’t change his message, although it did evolve over time. In sticking to his values, he became an icon.
“Ali was brash, bold, black,” Cosby said. “‘I’m handsome. I’m beautiful. I’m too pretty to be beat.’ These were very affirming statements for a people who were wrestling with issues of colorism. Who were taught to hate themselves. Who were taught to glorify everything that was white.”
Cosby, also a Louisville native, grew up idolizing Ali. In his late teens, he got to know the boxer through a mentor, the Rev. Charles Mims Jr., who was the pastor of the church the Clays attended. Cosby sometimes traveled with Mims to the West Coast to visit Ali. Other times they would meet at his mother’s house in Louisville.
Their conversations always turned to religion. During his Nation of Islam days, and later when he began adhering to Sunni Islam, Ali would quiz Cosby about passages of the Bible that appeared contradictory. They would debate about the differences between Christianity and Islam.
‘That’s heavy, man. That’s heavy,” was how The Champ punctuated discussions when he hit upon a point he found striking, Cosby recalled. “Or he would make a statement and say, ‘Ain’t that heavy, man? That’s heavy!’”
When Cosby preached at Ali’s funeral, he borrowed from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech. Cosby told the thousands who gathered to lay Ali to rest that the famous boxer had helped instill that sense of “somebodiness” in African-Americans through a message of black empowerment, even when it meant risking his livelihood.
“Everything in American history was designed to infuse in black people that we were nobody,” Cosby said recently. “But then here comes Ali. And during a time when black people had been taught that they were nobody, here is a man who taught black people that they were somebody.”
The Muhammad Ali Center on Louisville’s riverfront is a tribute to the boxer’s life story and is focused on preserving his legacy through six core principles: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
“I would say since Muhammad passed in 2016 that mission has become more and more relevant,” said Jeanie Kahnke, the Ali Center’s senior director of public relations and external affairs.
Ali became a voice for black people across the diaspora, Kahnke said, even if that isn’t what he set out to do. He was just speaking his truth.
The world is still catching up.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
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