It was, sadly, so long ago.
It feels ancient now as I look at home from afar. Unbridled Spirit, the commonwealth’s adopted slogan, has been crushed. The incomprehensible loss of Breonna Taylor, who became famous only in death, has torn Louisville apart over the past six months. On Tuesday, the three police officers who killed her during a flubbed apartment raid were cleared of any criminal charges directly tied to her shooting. A Jefferson County grand jury indicted only one of them, former detective Brett Hankinson, on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment for firing his gun into the neighboring apartment.
When stray bullets penetrate the wrong walls, it’s reasonable to expect justice. However, the ones that pierced Taylor’s body and ended her innocent life go down as justifiable.
Louisville keeps smoldering in racial tension. It is once again the epicenter of national unrest, and the chaos is distressing: violent opportunists mixed with peaceful protesters, pepper balls, riot gear, arrests, two officers shot Tuesday night.
“I am broken, stressed and just mad,” my father wrote in a text message.
Four years ago, Louisville was a place of healing. Ali, the city’s greatest advocate and champion, came home for eternity. His wife, Lonnie, eulogized him in the most selfless manner that day. She always had to share him with the world, and it wasn’t a burden for her, just as Ali handled fame with grace. Her message included a tribute to Joe Elsby Martin, the late policeman who introduced her husband to boxing in 1954.
Ali was 12 at the time. He was still Cassius Clay. And he was angry and in tears because someone had stolen his bicycle. He went to file a police report and told Martin, with trademark bravado, that he would whip the thief. Martin countered with an idea to funnel that rage: an invitation to his recreation center, Columbia Gym. This relationship — frustrated Black boy, compassionate White cop — gave birth to the most important career in the history of boxing. It focused a brash youngster who would grow into a hero.
“Joe Martin handed young Cassius Clay the keys to a future in boxing he could scarcely have imagined,” Lonnie said four years ago. “America must never forget that when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen.”
Actually, America may have never absorbed the full lesson.
As he evolved from the Louisville Lip to The Greatest, Ali kept Louisville close. He challenged and changed the world, but no matter how ridiculed or revered he was, he maintained his personable charm. The city didn’t just love Ali. It knew him. Louisville is full of people who can tell personal stories about growing up with Ali and interacting with him, about his kindness and humor. He represented the most bombastic example how we see ourselves: special yet down to earth. And so in love with home, despite its quirks and troubling past and national perception.
I watch Ali clips on YouTube all the time. One of my favorites is his 1974 interview after beating George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. He ended that session this way: “I’m recognized all over the world now, but my greatness came and started in Louisville, Ky. And that’s one of the greatest cities in America. Louisville, Ky.!”
He was Louisville’s hype man, and who could ignore anything Ali said? Even if you tried, he would wear you down with the volume of his words.
But he’s gone now. We like to honor the dead and maintain their legacies by saying their spirits live on. But while Louisville has the memory of an exemplary humanitarian to draw upon — of a man who risked his freedom and career to do what he felt was right, of a fearless voice that transcended all societal barriers — it struggles right now to be the great city that Ali saw.
Some details of the Taylor shooting are complicated. So is the debate about police brutality and accountability. But what good is any community that can’t handle complicated? During this year of death and turbulence, it should be easy to see a broken system, in Louisville and every city across the nation. It should be easy to find reason to be sick, of our conflicting attitudes and every devastating display of inhumane behavior. But until we can unite around basic human decency, there is no hope for resolution.
I remember the words of Foreman as he dealt with the passing of Ali: “You don’t want to live in a world without Muhammad Ali. It’s horrible.”
He seemed to be referencing the pain of losing a rival who became a good friend. But it felt like a warning.
You get the feeling Ali sensed the potential for chaos. That’s why he scripted his funeral long before dying, with a vision to bring people together one more time. He and the family created a document they called “The Book.” The details were clear, including that final ride through Louisville.
“Some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s in a meeting that included his closest advisers, Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world,” Lonnie said. “In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up in segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
Ali made the world better with heart. His was a heart that kept caring. His was a heart that kept fighting. He truly lived with the unbridled spirit of home.
Four years ago, Louisville sparkled as it said goodbye to an unforgettable idol. Then it quickly forgot some key lessons of his prodigious life.
This is not the Louisville I remember. Or maybe my memory is more of a preference. Maybe I have a more fanciful perception of my old Kentucky home than I realize.
“Leaning on faith,” my dad wrote in his last message, vowing to stay safe.
No, you don’t want to live in a world without Ali. It’s horrible.