Muhammad Ali: A fight even the boxing great could not win – segregation in his hometown of Louisville

'The Greatest' will be laid to rest on Friday in his birthplace Louisville, Kentucky. But the city is as divided by race and wealth as it was when Ali was still Cassius Clay, says Andrew Dewson

Andrew Dewson
Monday 06 June 2016 13:51 BST
Members of the Louisville Islamic Center write messages on a memorial banner as they pay their respect to Muhammad Ali
Members of the Louisville Islamic Center write messages on a memorial banner as they pay their respect to Muhammad Ali (Reuters)

Louisville’s Metro Sewage Department built a dozen “combined sewage overflow” facilities used to treat overflow of waste and storm water before it flows back into the Ohio River. It built them in neighbourhoods across the city. Everywhere one was built, the windowless, two-story treatment buildings were planned underground, the surface grassed and landscaped and turned into parks. Everywhere except one location: Smoketown, Louisville’s oldest historically black neighbourhood.

This didn’t happen in 1960. This happened in 2016.

The unthinking racism that lies behind the sewage overflow development in Smoketown isn’t the in-your-face racism we see at Donald Trump rallies, but its impact on real lives is arguably far more destructive. It’s the sort of racism that results in planners making sewage facilities unnoticeable in affluent neighbourhoods but eyesores in poor neighbourhoods. Thankfully, residents of Smoketown rallied and forced the sewage department to alter its plans – but even then, the department’s rethink was done begrudgingly.

One of the great ironies of Muhammad Ali’s life is that the city he was born in, the city that refused to serve him after he won gold at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, remains shockingly segregated: an affluent, predominately white east end, and an impoverished, predominately black and Latino west end.

For all of Ali’s lifelong fight against injustice and the undeniable improvements in integration since the 1960s, there are times when it feels like all Louisville is missing are “whites only” signs. According to analysis of the 2015 US census, Louisville is the fourth most segregated city in the United States. The irony doesn’t end there. Louisville is also one of the most politically liberal of all southern cities and voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Muhammad Ali didn’t always have a great relationship with his home city, arguably he never did. He may have been “The Louisville Lip” but he rarely fought here, and never for a championship. He lived almost all of his adult life away from the city – as a fighter he lived where the money was, and as a Parkinson’s patient he lived where he had access to the best treatment.

For anyone with health issues, and Ali had enough of those, Louisville is an unappealing home: thanks to its location deep in the Ohio Valley it’s also the fourth worst city in the United States for allergies. He only bought a home in the city in 2007, and even then spent most of his time in the cleaner climate of Arizona. Who can blame him for that? Well, in Louisville, apparently lots of people can blame him for that.

It’s also not unusual for a global hero to have to fight harder for respect among people who grew up with them. Almost all of the nasty comments left on Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s Facebook tributes to Ali come from Louisville residents. Draft dodger, loudmouth, Muslim… his list of offences runs long.

That Ali remained a divisive figure among people of his generation in his hometown, particularly in light of the current political climate, probably ought not to be a shock. After all, his lifelong hatred of racial injustice was not formed in the ring but on the streets of Louisville’s west end.

Muhammad Ali funeral open to people from 'all walks of life'

Younger city residents know a different Ali – the Muhammad Ali Centre in downtown Louisville, which opened in 2005, tells more of his journey of self-belief and global inspiration than it does about his career in the ring. Louisville isn’t afraid to talk about Ali’s fight for racial inequality and integration, but meaningful action has met much far resistance than talk.

Attica Scott recently became the first black women to win a seat in the Kentucky State House for two decades, in a district that covers both the white east end of Louisville and the black west. “We still have housing policies at local and state level that create barriers to racial integration, we still have major gaps in access to healthcare and education. Although the public education system is technically integrated there are still big differences based on geographic location,” she said.

Ms Scott adds that segregation will even impact how Ali is mourned. “I still live two blocks away from his childhood home,” she said. “Perhaps nothing better illustrates the segregation of the city than the fact that laying a tribute on the sidewalk outside that home will probably be the only way the neighbourhood gets to celebrate his life. The official ceremony will take place in an arena [Louisville’s Yum Centre] that most people around here cannot afford to attend for any event.”

While Ali may have been a much more divisive figure in Louisville than he was elsewhere, this city is also not short on people who loved him. Most of those are people who met him. Unlike his friend Prince, who kept his cards pinned to his chest and was only worshiped from afar, everyone who met Ali felt like they had got to know him.

I’ve lived in Louisville for a decade. Knowing that it was Ali’s hometown was one of the few things I knew about the place when I met a girl from Kentucky in London nearly 15 years ago, and even I’ve got an Ali story. The first time I came here he was getting off another plane at the same time. A crowd gathered around him, and everyone who wanted a picture with him got one. I decided against it – despite his obvious enjoyment, his smiles and warmth, Mrs Ali looked like she was about to start throwing haymakers.

Don’t get me wrong. Louisville is a great place, an underrated gem of the south. But if Louisville really wants to cement Ali’s legacy and heal its relationship with him, even after his death, it will have to fight harder than ever for integration. But as the disgraceful sewage treatment story shows, the fight is a long way from the final bell.

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