The Louisville Lip: Muhammad Ali’s fighting words fueled a movement

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.

In this April 2, 1963, file photo, boxer Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) is seen with his mother, Odessa Grady Clay. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74. (AP Photo)


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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.

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Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston in 1965. (AP Photo/John Rooney)

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Ali's boisterous one-liners reinforced a mindset that was revolutionary at the time, said the Rev. Kevin Cosby, a Louisville pastor who spoke at Ali's funeral when he died in 2016 at age 74.

“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.

Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron at the opening ceremonies for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. 

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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!’”

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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.”

A TOWERING FIGURE-- June 9, 2016 Atlanta: Pedestrians make their way across the Decatur Street bridge nearby the famous image of boxer Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston that loomed over the Atlanta downtown connector visible to southbound motorists on Thursday, June 9, 2016 on the 80-foot by 25-foot digital sign on the Corey Tower. The 300-foot tall smokestack's sign memorialized Ali with a simple "RIP" above the image. an interfaith service was held at the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in memory of Ali. Similar gatherings were held in mosques across the country, a prelude to the Friday burial and a final, massive celebration in Louisville, Ky., Ali's hometown. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM


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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.


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