-Huff Post Black Voices
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — They flocked to Louisville from all over the world to pay last respects to Muhammad Ali a week after The Champ had died. A Nigerian from Venice Beach who spent a two-hour flight telling everyone around him how much Ali meant to him and the people of Africa. A woman from Ohio who, just days after hip surgery, had suffered four hours on the road to see Ali one last time. A man from Georgia who, in the airport the day after the ceremony, said he knew this was where he “had to be.”
They came to Louisville to mourn and celebrate the life of the city’s most famous icon, the boxing great who was a three-time heavyweight champion of the world inside the ring, and had an immeasurable political and cultural impact outside of it.
If any of the visitors were unaware of what Ali meant to his hometown before they arrived, they couldn’t help but understand once there. Tens of thousands of people lined Bardstown Road, south of the city, for the start of a 19-mile processional that snaked through Louisville. An estimated 50,000 more waited for the processional along Muhammad Ali Boulevard and Broadway downtown. City workers in orange “I Am Ali” T-shirts were ubiquitous downtown; public buses changed their displays to read “Ali — The Greatest.” Banners marking his death flew from lampposts. Tributes were visible on theater marquees and in shop and restaurant windows across town.
A banner that declares him “Louisville’s Ali” hangs from the side of the Louisville Gas & Electric building downtown, visible to travelers on both Interstates 64 and 65. It has been there for more than a decade, but its message was particularly poignant now: For the week following his death, the city and its most famous athlete had become inseparable.
It wasn’t always this way.
The Louisville of Ali’s birth was a city still plagued by Jim Crow, a town to which he, a black Olympic gold medalist, returned from Rome in 1960 to find he couldn’t sit in the same downtown restaurants as his white neighbors. Even as he shot to national and international fame, large swaths of white Louisville rejected Ali for his unflinching embrace of his blackness; for his conversion to Islam; for his resistance to the Vietnam War; and most of all, for challenging and questioning the racial status quo that white Louisville — and white America — had created and demanded he respect.
Ali’s activism and outspokenness once sharply divided opinions of him in his hometown. And though the city united to celebrate Ali in the week following his death, there were still concerns among some in the African-American community that the city was celebrating a simpler version of its hero, one who became more ambassadorial and statesman-like in his later years, and whose boisterous voice was silenced by his fight with Parkinson’s syndrome. Louisville has certainly changed since Ali’s most controversial days, and its embrace of Ali reflects that. But it also seemed possible that this city-wide celebration could serve to paper over the many divides that Ali once challenged — and that still exist today.
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