Muhammad Ali begins his eternal rest in a Louisville so changed that the city is poised to take down the Confederate monument that has stood there for 121 years.
Kentucky had never joined the secession, instead staying neutral, which meant that it manufactured uniforms for both sides while flying the Union flag but ignoring the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves comprised just under a fifth of the state’s population and were bought and sold in the Louisville marketplace even as Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman met nearby.
But, a good number of Louisville’s young white men fought and died for the Confederacy. Many were buried in the city’s Cave Hill Cemetery, and in 1887 a group of women met in the basement of the Walnut State Baptist Church to discuss decorating their graves. Somebody suggested they take it a step further and build a monument to all the Confederate dead.
The newly formed Kentucky Women’s Confederate Monument Association – said by some to have been headed by Susan Preston Hepburn, sister of a confederate general - set to raising $12,400 with raffles and performances and picnics and more. The cornerstone was laid in 1895. The objects stashed inside included Confederate money and one of Jefferson Davis’ cigars.
On July 30, 1895, a group featuring 200 onetime Confederate soldiers with a battle torn Stars and Bars assembled on Broadway. They paraded down 3rd Street to the newly completed 70-foot tall granite tower.
“Our Confederate Dead, 1861-1865," one inscription read.
Another read, "Tribute to the Rank and File of the Armies of the South"
And there the monument stood year after year, along with signs posted throughout the city reading “Whites” or “Colored,” marking which separate but not at all equal facilities were restricted to which race. Many other places required no sign; anywhere there were only whites was a place for whites only. A 1914 statute made it illegal for anyone to sell or rent to those of a race besides his own.
In 1947, the Louisville Department of Public Works proposed moving the monument because it was impeding the flow of vehicular traffic, the site having long since ceased to be at the edge of town. The newly elected Mayor Charles Farnley was also the head of the Louisville chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and he positioned himself in front of the monument clutching a rifle. He was later asked what in the law hindered the relocation of the monument.
“I’m the only hindrance and I’m not legal,” he replied, as reported the Louisville Courier.
The monument stayed where it was, but along with the likes of Mayor Farnley, there were folks such as a white police officer named Joe Martin. He was off-duty and overseeing a basement recreation center on a rainy night in 1954 when a tearful 12 year-old boy came running in. The boy said that a red Schwinn bicycle he had gotten for Christmas had been stolen and he was going to “whup” the thief. Martin told the boy that he would file a report of the theft and offered some simple advice that would prove historic.
“You better learn to fight before you start fightin’,” Martin said.
Martin set to teaching the basics of boxing to this boy who still went by the name of Cassius Clay. The boy won a gold medal at the Olympics in Rome six years later.
That was in 1960. Segregation remained generally so pervasive in Louisville that a local theatre barred black patrons from a performance of Porgy and Bess. Protesters challenged that exclusion, just as they had an unwritten rule prohibiting black men riding inside streetcars back in 1870, just as they would in coming years against racial discrimination in schools and libraries and housing.
In the meantime, the young gold medalist went pro and became world champion. He announced that his name was now Muhammad Ali and that he had become a follower of the Nation of Islam.
When the local draft board called Ali to military service, he announced that his religion precluded him from doing so. He proclaimed himself a conscientious objector and a full FBI investigation was followed by a hearing in the summer of 1966.
The federally appointed hearing officer was an eminent retired state judge, who had long proven himself to be a sterling example of Louisville’s more decent side. Graumann heard testimony from Ali, as well as the fighter’s mother and father and others. Graumann reported his finding to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“On the basis of this record the hearing officer concluded that the registrant was sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form, and he recommended that the conscientious objector claim be sustained,” court papers note.
Two years before, President Johnson had championed the Civil Rights Act, but his big worry now was the Vietnam War. He was anxious that the great Muhammad Ali not be seen as beating the draft as well as opponents in the ring. The Justice Department ignored Graumann’s finding and ordered Ali to report for induction.
Ali was never told of Graumann’s recommendation. He did not need to be told what he stood to lose when he refused to step forward at the induction center. He immediately lost his boxing license. He was prosecuted for draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He was freed pending appeal, but he had to surrender his passport, which meant he was also unable to fight overseas.
Ali was cheated of his prime years as a boxer and there was nothing anybody could do to give them back after the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out his conviction. The court found that the Justice Department had chosen to disregard the rule of law.
“The petitioner's criminal conviction stemmed from the Selective Service System's denial of his appeal seeking conscientious objector status,” the court ruled. “That denial, for which no reasons were ever given, was, as we have said, based on a recommendation of the Department of Justice, overruling its hearing officer and…judgment is reversed.”
By then, the forces of racial justice had scored a victory in Kentucky, with the passage of the state’s 1966 Civil Rights law, described as the most sweeping in the country. The “whites” and “colored” signs disappeared and one race could now sell a house to another race. The schools were integrated, at least officially.
Yet that Confederate Monument still stood.
On April 29 of this year, the current mayor, Greg Fischer announced that the time had come to dismantle it.
“The stain of slavery and racism that this monument represents for many people has no place in a compassionate, forward looking city,” he said at a press conference held at the foot of the monument.
He added, "I recognize that some people say this monument should stay here because it is part of history, but I also appreciate that we can make our own history.”
He continued, “Civil Rights 2.0 – whatever you want to call this phase our city is in right now – people, I think, are much more appreciative of the pain that people have had through multiple generations in our country and more willing to accept their part in that toward solutions.”
Fischer was joined in the announcement by James Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, on whose campus the monument stands. Ramsey said the removal was to begin immediately.
“You can see the equipment right back there,” Ramsey said. “It is ready to go.”
An earthmover was on hand and had already begun to dig alongside the base. The major work had not yet commenced when a temporary restraining order was granted an opposing coalition. The alliance included the Kentucky Sons of Confederate Veterans, whose local chapter had once been headed by Fischer’s predecessor, Farnley.
At a May 25, hearing, the opposition contended that the city did not own the site and that the law prohibited the removal of “venerated objects” as well as the destruction of historic sites. The city contended otherwise and the judge agreed, lifting the restraining order.
"I am pleased with the judge's ruling that the city owns the monument and has the right to move it," Fischer said in a statement afterwards. "We will await the judge's final written ruling before taking next steps.”
The dismantling still awaited the written order nine days later, when word came that Muhammad Ali had died. His funeral procession wound through the streets of Louisville just as that long ago parade had 121 years ago to the newly completed Confederate monument.
Only, the ceremony that accompanied this week’s procession was for all races and creeds and nationalities. The memorial had been scripted by Ali himself and it was a final gift to us in a time when some are trying to further their own interests with bigotry.
Ali was then laid to rest in Cave Hill Cemetery, also the burial place of Farnley and the Confederate dead in whose memory the monument was originally erected. The monument is expected to come down in the days ahead, supposedly to be rebuilt elsewhere.
But nobody at City Hall seems able to say where a new site might be in a Louisville that has changed so much that it rightly is the eternal as well as childhood home of the one known first to himself and then the rest of us as The Greatest.
A petition has gone up online suggesting what should rise in the place of the edifice that many see not as a monument to gallant dead but rather as a symbol of grievous wrongs suffered by so many for so long.
“What better to replace it than a statue in memory of Louisville’s greatest son, Muhammad Ali?” the petition asks.