Much more than a boxer, Muhammad Ali was a cultural icon, a source of Black pride, a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, a convert to Islam, a political activist, a humanitarian and a philanthropist.
He was widely regarded as the most famous living person in the world, but Ali chose to be buried in his hometown of Louisville.
On an extended weekend trip to the city just across the Ohio River from Indiana, my wife, son and younger daughter visited Ali’s grave Friday at Cave Hill Cemetery.
A colorful array of flowers frames the modest slab marking his resting place since his death in June 2016. Fifteen feet up the hill, a stone monument proclaims in capital letters, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.”
Ali, then Cassius Clay, brought home from Rome an Olympic gold medal in 1960 at the age of 18. But he threw it into the Ohio, the story goes, after he was refused service at a restaurant in his segregated hometown.
Today, six decades later, Louisville, like much of the rest of the country, is still battling the demons of racial strife.
Kentucky’s largest city has felt the pain acutely over the past few months, starting in mid-March when 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency room technician, was gunned down by police in her Louisville home during a late-night drug raid.
Holding a no-knock warrant, plainclothes officers used a battering ram to crash through the door. She and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were startled in bed.
Not realizing the invaders were police, the boyfriend said, he fired a shot that wounded a sergeant in the leg.
Officers then opened fire. Taylor was riddled with at least eight bullets.
Neither Taylor nor her boyfriend had a record of drug convictions, and police found no drugs in the apartment.
One of the police officers involved has been fired, and the city of Louisville has outlawed no-knock warrants. But it hasn’t been enough to quell the unrest.
Infuriated by Taylor’s death and that of George Floyd in Minneapolis, thousands of Louisville residents have joined the national protest movement against police brutality and racial injustice.
Anger spiked again in Louisville early this month after David McAtee, 53, a Black man, was shot to death by a Kentucky National Guardsman as the military assisted police with enforcing a curfew.
McAtee, reportedly, had shot a gun as officers fired pepper balls to disperse people gathered near his barbecue restaurant. According to family members, McAtee was defending his niece. Surveillance camera footage appears to show that she was nearly struck by a pepper ball just before McAtee fired.
All of these events seemed almost far-fetched as my family and I enjoyed Louisville over the weekend. We spied some Black Lives Matter yard signs and references to Taylor in shop windows and on business marquees. And we saw boarded-up windows here and there.
But few people were out and about, and the city seemed peaceful, almost sleepy. Many, we assumed, were still self-quarantining because of the pandemic. Some, we reasoned, were discouraged by the 90-degree heat.
We enjoyed a late dinner Saturday night at Harvest Restaurant near downtown, blissfully unaware that a mile away, at Jefferson Square Park near downtown, violence had flared.
A man standing on the perimeter of the park had fired more than a dozen shots into a crowd of people who had gathered to demand justice for Taylor.
A 27-year-old white resident of Louisville, Tyler Gerth, was killed and another person was hospitalized. Details of what happened at Jefferson Square were still emerging Sunday, but an arrest has been made.
Saturday’s shooting happened about 3 miles from Muhammad Ali’s grave and just two blocks north of a Louisville thoroughfare named for him.
Much has changed since Ali protested the war in Vietnam and helped lead the movement in the 1960s to empower Black people.
As recent events in his hometown have illuminated again, there is much yet to be changed.