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  • From "Pitifully Ignorant" to the "People's Champion":Shifting Perceptions of Muhammad Ali in the Louisville Defender, 1964–1971

Muhammad Ali lived away from Louisville for most of his life. Upon his death in June 2016, however, the famed boxer's body was repatriated for a series of extraordinary funeral celebrations. Louisville's black population became a focal point of the mourning. Under the hot Kentucky sun, thousands gathered on Grand Avenue in the West End to watch Ali's funeral procession pass his childhood home. Black Louisvillians mourned, but they also celebrated. They waved banners and shouted "Ali, Bomaye!" or "the champ is home!" Dr. Kevin Cosby explained that Ali was a "tremendous source of pride.… Because I'm from Louisville, and he looks like me."1 The way black Louisville memorialized Ali was moving, and the events spoke to important racial issues in the city's past and present. However, in terms of remembering Louisville's attitudes toward Ali during [End Page 611] his heyday, the city's posthumous veneration of the great boxer was also problematic.

Ali was not always universally loved in Louisville. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, black Louisvillians interpreted Ali's racial and religious beliefs, and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, in complex, heterogeneous ways. Following his death, some of Louisville's leading black citizens expressed concern that "the city was celebrating a simpler version of its hero."2 Black Louisville's historical relationship with Ali was anything but simple—particularly during the 1960s and 1970s. The city's African American community was comprised of a diverse set of people and institutions, with varying opinions on Ali. This article will focus on one of those institutions: Louisville's black newspaper, the Louisville Defender. The Defender was owned, edited, and produced by a small group of middle-aged black men who advocated a specific set of values, including racial integration and notions of respectability associated with the southern black bourgeoisie. As a result, the Defender's editorial direction was often at odds with Ali's more radical approach to racial matters. As Ali's hometown newspaper, the Defender has often provided source material for histories of the famous Louisvillian. Despite this, there has been no attempt to analyze the Defender's reactions to Ali, or to place these reactions within the broader context of black-press journalism.3 Some authors have left snippets and hints, but unfortunately these are inconclusive and contradictory.4

Defender journalists who wrote about Ali in his prime were [End Page 612]

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Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, posing for a photographer in 1963. Because of his conversion to Islam, the Louisville native was not initially presented as a hometown hero by the Louisville Defender. Photograph by Lin Caufield. University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections.

[End Page 613] influenced by more than just hometown partisanship. Like their black-press contemporaries in other cities, they engaged critically with Ali and wrote articles that contributed to a complex and dynamic discourse about his racial, religious, and antiwar ideologies. The Defender's coverage of Ali changed dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s, undergoing distinct shifts in 1964, 1967, and 1970. When Cassius Clay announced his membership in the Nation of Islam in early 1964, the Defender's reaction was overwhelmingly negative. When he resisted the draft in mid-1967, the staff's displeasure with his religious affiliation remained, but this was tempered by their admiration of his stoicism before a seemingly malevolent white bureaucracy. By 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor in his draft-evasion case, the Defender's coverage of him was generally positive. Like many other newspapers, the Defender's support for the war in Vietnam had waned and the paper celebrated Ali's stand as a hero for black equality.

As sport historian Michael Oriard has noted, "at every stage of his career there was not a single Ali but many Alis in the public consciousness."5 Although local factors were important to the paper's representations of Ali, the discourse of the national black press ultimately mattered...


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