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    Ask any Louisvillian who this city’s most important historic figure is and you’ll likely hear the same answer: Muhammad Ali. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, Ali grew up in the Parkland neighborhood of Louisville. He was drawn to the boxing ring — one of the only integrated spaces in the city — from the age of 12. Ali represents much more than a spectacular athlete — he is an icon of black nationalism, an antiwar activist, and a representative for the Nation of Islam.

    On Tuesday, Jonathan Eig released Ali: A Life — the most comprehensive biography of Ali to date. Eig, a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a New York Times-bestselling author, spent years interviewing more than 500 people with connections to Ali, scouring FBI and medical records, and visiting Ali’s family in Louisville. In this fascinating portrait of Ali, Eig explores the full story behind the man he knew as a superhero.

    I spoke to Eig about how Ali’s activism evolved over his lifetime and how his actions have inspired current forms of protest, such as Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the National Anthem before an NFL game in September 2016, declaring, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” which sparked a national debate.

    In these words, you hear echoes of Ali: “I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me."

    Eig will be speaking at the Louisville Free Public Library, Main branch, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, at 7 p.m.

     

    Louisville Magazine: Louisville was segregated when Cassius Clay grew up here, and the boxing ring was one of the few places that was integrated. Can you talk about the kind of childhood Ali had here?

    Jonathan Eig: Louisville in Ali’s childhood was still segregated. It prided itself on being less segregated and less conflicted than many other Southern cities––there weren’t the lynchings and the race riots you saw in other cities––but it was still obvious that in Cassius Clay’s childhood he could not sit in the main section of a movie theater. In many restaurants, he was not welcomed. He was growing up in Jim Crow South.

     

    How did that shape his political views?

    Even as a kid, he was fascinated by the issue of race. He would ask whether his mother, who passed for white, could get away with some of the things his father couldn’t, just because she was lighter. He would ask why he couldn’t be rich someday, and his father would say, “Look at the color of your skin. That’s why you can’t be rich. In America, you’re never going to get a fair deal.” His father was very outspoken and was of the opinion that white people would never give black people a fair shot — that the only way forward would be to leave the country and go back to Africa, as Marcus Garvey suggested. He heard all these things at the dinner table. He was the same age as Emmett Till. When Emmett Till was murdered, and his picture was on the front of all the black newspapers, that was something his family talked about a lot.

     

    Did you have ideas about Ali that you started with? And how did they change over the course of learning more about him?

    I went into it as a fan. I grew up in the ’70s and watched him on TV. He was like a superhero — so big, so strong, so entertaining. He didn’t seem like a real person to me. When I began to research his life, and put that mythology out of my mind, I found so much that I didn’t know. Everything from learning that his grandfather had killed a man in Louisville over a 25 cent craps game — I don’t think Ali even knew that — to meeting Ali’s brother, his wives, to hearing the juicy and sad details of their marriages. To immerse myself in his life was fascinating — I don’t know where to start.

     

    You’ve written about other athletes like Lou Gehrig and Jackie Robinson. How does Ali stand apart?

    He’s not only a spectacular athlete, but almost from the beginning he realized early on that he could use his athletic fame to do more than compete as an athlete — that he could speak out, that he could call attention to the unfair treatment of black people in America, just as Jackie Robinson realized he had an opportunity with his baseball talent to change the way blacks were perceived, and treated, in this country. Ali realized the same opportunity. It wasn’t that he was just a great boxer. That’s what makes Ali special.

     

    Can you talk about the parallels between Ali and Robinson? What kind of public roles did they have?

    There are definitely parallels. Athletes have a platform that is almost unmatched in American culture. Martin Luther King or Stokely Carmichael can organize rallies and protests, but they don’t get to reach the American public without filters. The white media filters what they say. But athletes are out there on the field of play. Muhammad Ali is in the ring punching the white guy in the face and proving his superiority. And when the fight is over, he can take the microphone and say whatever he wants, and no one can stop him. Jackie Robinson didn’t use his mouth as much, but when he was the only African American in major league baseball, his play sent a message that blacks were equal. He earned his way onto the field and proved he could compete. That sent a really powerful message that change is coming.

     

    We are in a political climate in which our own president is calling for athletes like Kaepernick, who refuse to stand for the National Anthem in protest, to be fired. Do these current protests have roots in Ali’s activism?

    There’s a straight line from Ali to Kaepernick. And, unfortunately, there’s still a straight line from the racism of the 1960’s to the racism of 2017. There are still people around today who say that black athletes should just do their job and keep their mouths shut. You don’t see them saying that about white athletes. That hasn’t changed. But these athletes today would all tell you that Ali paved the way for them. He spoke up at a time when it was unheard of for black athletes to speak up.

     

    What has changed in this country, in terms of race, since Ali grew up?

    All over the country, we still have segregated neighborhoods. We still have schools that are as segregated now as they were in the Jim Crow days. We have even more of a discrepancy in terms of the incarceration rates. In many ways, our country is more segregated than they were in the days of Jim Crow.

     

    You were here in Louisville for Ali’s funeral. What was that like?
    It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I knew there would be dignitaries flying in, and I knew that presidents and celebrities would be there. But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of people from Louisville and from all over the country who came just to stand on the side of the road and see his hearse go by. I can’t think of anyone else who has ever received that kind of a send-off in my lifetime, in this country. Presidents don’t get that kind of an outpouring of affection. Hollywood celebrities don’t. I was really, really moved. I was interviewing people on the street. I talked to a retired steelworker from Detroit. I talked to white construction workers from South Carolina. A woman from upstate New York. They weren’t people who knew Ali. They didn’t have passes to see him. They were people who were touched by him and wanted to say goodbye, and took time off work and drove down. It really made me pause and think about why Ali had this kind of an impact on our country, and on these people.

     

    Have you seen anyone since him that has had that kind of impact?

    The amazing thing about Ali is that he transcends race and politics. You can look at someone like Obama, who was obviously enormously important, and a source of enormous pride for African Americans — but he was also a deeply divisive figure. Especially given that (Ali) was the most hated man in the middle of the 1960’s, to become that beloved is really extraordinary.

     

    Cover photo: Muhammad Ali

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