In a move that makes me proud to be a Kentuckian, (let’s ignore Matt Bevin and #WheresMitch McConnell for a moment) the Louisville Regional Airport Authority Board voted to rename the city’s airport after one of the greatest athletes and humanitarians of all time, Cassius Clay better known to the world as Muhammad Ali. The airport will now be called the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. It was a change that many spoke about after Ali’s passing and one that came to fruition January 16, 2019, just days before Martin Luther King Day.
I can recall when Muhammad Ali died it was felt around the world particularly in the city where he was born and trained, Louisville, Kentucky. While Ali was a global superstar, Louisville was his home, and it was in the neighborhood of Smoketown where his passion for boxing was ignited. When Ali died, it was as if Louisville paused, absorbing the totality of a life that indeed, “Shook the world.” We realized that on that day a candle had lost its flame. People lined the streets for miles, some solemn others chanting, “Ali boma ye,” a quote that would follow Ali almost all of his life after his fight against George Foreman, nicknamed, “The Rumble In The Jungle.” Ali won by knockout, and the fight has been called arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century. It sealed Ali’s fate as the Greatest Of All Time.
The impact of Ali’s life was tremendous and was felt far beyond the boxing ring. Ali’s life showed the world that anything was possible. In fact, it was Ali that said, “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” Ali lived his life in such a way that dared people to dream. His list of achievements is practically endless. So, it is fitting that someone that has done so much around the world would be honored in his hometown with such adoration.
And you would think that everyone in Kentucky would rejoice. What an amazing way to honor a man whose very name brings honor to the city. However, that was not the case. While many people were pleased, the comments soon popped up on social media calling into question why Muhammad Ali is worthy of this honor? Truthfully, I found the comments to be typical. It was fine honoring Ali when they could just wear a t-shirt with his image on it. It was all good as long as Ali remained the person they constructed in their heads that suited them. It’s cool as long as it’s the Ali that floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. They love that Ali. That is the Ali that doesn’t make them uncomfortable. That is the Ali they can brag about with their drinking buddies. That is the Ali that doesn’t challenge their way of thinking. Similarly, to the whitewashed version of Martin Luther King Jr that so many have constructed and that we will read “convenient tweets” about on Monday, as long as it’s the Ali that doesn’t ruffle their feathers, there is no problem. But do not forget it was here in his hometown of Louisville where Ali was called, “the Olympic nigger,” and was denied service in a “Whites Only” restaurant after returning from the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960.
Now watching some people in an uproar about the name change, I wonder how much has truly changed in Kentucky in 59 years?
What they fail to realize is that as much as Ali was known for boxing, he was also known to be a strong advocate for justice.
When he was questioned about dodging the draft, Ali pointed the finger back at America and the people that were opposing Black people, “I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”
When asked about why he didn’t serve in the army do not forget Ali said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?”
When speaking up about representation do not forget it was Ali that asked, “Why are all the angels white? Why ain’t there no black angels?”
Ali held strong to his convictions when he said, “No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once, and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
When it came time to take to a stand even at the expense of his freedom, Ali said, “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my Constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.“
When asked about changing his name, Ali said, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.”
When it came time to speak up about fighting for justice in Louisville, it was Ali that said, “In your struggle for freedom, justice, and equality I am with you. I came to Louisville because I could not remain silent while my own people, many I grew up with, many I went to school with, many my blood relatives, were being beaten, stomped and kicked in the streets simply because they want freedom, and justice and equality in housing.”
Ali said, “I’m fighting slavery. I want to be free!”
Ali fought so that others could be free. He lived his life in service to others so that he could pass on the torch and we could continue the fight. Almost three decades after Ali was denied service at the Whites Only restaurant, we are still fighting the same battle, not just in Louisville but around the world. We are still fighting to be free.
For those are upset about the name change, truly ask yourself, “Why does this upset me?” And take a moment to wrestle and rest with the answer. Challenge yourself to face a truth that you may not want to see. That is how we begin to change not just in name but in deed and continue the legacy left by Ali, combatting injustice with love and understanding.
Additional Reading: All You Had To Do Was Play The Game, Boy