In truth, I probably have no business writing about Muhammad Ali.
I am not a native Louisvillian (though good lord, I love this town, as did he). I’m not black. I’m not Muslim. I did not live through the Civil Rights movement. I’m not an athlete. I’m not even a boxing fan. There are many people more qualified to speak to the monumental significance of his life and death than me. And many of them have, are, and will be in the days ahead.
But I learned early on in my time here in the 502 that to be a Louisvillian is to know who Muhammad Ali is. And I learned, in my first few years here, how very important his example, witness and inspiration have been to the town that raised him.
I have felt, over the last two days, so incredibly fortunate to be in this town, in this moment, watching, with a full heart, the outpouring of love for Louisville’s Ali (our downtown buildings are covered with murals of our most famous residents: Louisville’s Diane [Sawyer], Louisville’s Pee Wee [Reese], Louisville’s Jennifer [Lawrence] and so on, including Louisville’s Ali).
Within an hour of the public announcement of his death, folks were placing flowers and candles at the Ali Center downtown. By the next morning, memorial services were being planned. And now it’s common knowledge that Ali planned his own funeral specifically because he wanted it open to the public. And so it will be. And I can only imagine the streets of the funeral procession planned for Friday morning will be covered with people–of all ages, races and stages of life.
This is more than hometown pride, though that is certainly a huge part of what’s happening. What I’m seeing is almost surreal. As if Ali’s spirit is winding its way through us all, no matter who we are or where we’ve been, and reminding us that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, and at the same time, reminding us that we all matter.
He was a tremendous athlete. He was a tremendous humanitarian. He was a tremendous spirit. None of that can be denied. And in his death, what I’m seeing, is the very real hope that such a life as his can bring us. So far as I can tell, there is no specific qualifier for who gets to grieve and celebrate Ali. He belongs to all of us. I’ve seen tributes to him from white male conservative Christian Republicans all the way to little kids of all skin colors and socioeconomic status and religious faith. My own daughter, who has visited the Ali Center twice in her 9 years of life, even understands that something important has happened. The Louisville Islamic Center held a prayer service in his memory last night. An interfaith one at that. And an “Ali Festival” for children has been coordinated through the Mayor’s Office for tomorrow. I could go on…and on. Our flags are at half-mast and our Big Four Bridge will be lit in his colors.
It seems to me, that in the life of Ali, there was an entry point for everyone, should they desire it. Of course, there are naysayers. Those who critique his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Those who associate anyone who claims an Islamic faith with al-Qaeda. There are those who think “he was just a boxer.” (I overheard someone say that yesterday and thought 1) Where the hell have you been the last few decades of his life? and 2) As if YOU could be such an athlete?)
What I can tell you is this–the first time I walked into the Ali Center, some 10 years ago, I knew I’d stumbled into something extraordinarily special. I felt at peace. As if all the turmoil he knew, all the critique he endured, all the conflict born of those who feared and misunderstood him, had given way to this sense that he’d been somebody.
And as I walked through the Center, and learned about his faith, his experiences with racism (here in his own hometown, it must be said), his insistence that “I don’t have to be who you want me to be,” I was so humbled. And so inspired.
I watched the continuous loops of his fights that play at the Center. I even put on a pair of gloves and made a few jabs in the replica ring the Center holds. And I wondered at such a mighty man and his impact on the world.
I’ll tell you what it is, his life–it’s unifying. It’s past division and hate and fear and into hope and tolerance and love. His life, it stands in the face of all that threatens to undo us in this day and age and it suggests a better way. A way in which we all work at being our greatest selves, just as he did.
He really was, in so many ways, the greatest. But the thing is, in believing that about himself, he leaves room for others to be their greatest, too. He raised the bar on what it means to be a human being. And that is no small thing.
Several years ago, my friend Russ was visiting from California. I took him to the Ali Center while he was in town. And on our way out of the Center parking lot, an enormous black SUV drove up and past us. It was, we quickly figured out, Ali himself. The briefest of glimpses.
And still, I felt I’d brushed up against greatness.
Ali’s body came home to Louisville yesterday–and to that I say, “Rest in peace, Champ. And welcome home. We’re all better for you having lived.”