BBC News

The legacy of segregation in Muhammad Ali's hometown

By Jessica Lussenhop
BBC News Magazine

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image captionAli's childhood home stood dilapidated and vacant for many years before opening as a museum

Muhammad Ali grew up in a poor neighbourhood in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1950s. Sixty years later, segregation has yet to lose its grip on the city.

The same day that the legendary boxer died in a hospital bed in Arizona, a tiny corner market opened for business back in his boyhood neighbourhood in west Louisville.

Shop owner Tony Martin also grew up in the Parkland neighbourhood, and recently returned to open the store. It's just down the street and around the corner from 3302 Grand Avenue, the house where Ali was raised. This week, hundreds of fans and mourners made a pilgrimage to the recently renovated pink bungalow, which just opened as a museum the week before Ali's death.

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Martin says he came back to try to bring jobs to the community, at his store and his restaurant next door, Prime Time Fish and Barbecue. The area could use an economic shot in the arm.

"It's way worse," says Martin of the neighbourhood. "It's a lot of killing, a lot of killing is going on right around us. It's sad ... we have probably 20 to 25 homicides in a three or four-block radius."

The streets are dotted with abandoned homes. There are few businesses. The house at 3302 Grand Avenue was vacant for many years, its roof caving in, before two out-of-town lawyers bought it. Even after the renovations began, thieves stole the house's new air conditioning unit.

"The heroin rate has increased, there's a lot of crime following behind it," says Martin. "If I grow my store, I can improve my neighbourhood around me."

image captionTony Martin stands outside of his store, located around the corner from Muhammad Ali's boyhood home

On Friday, Ali's body will be laid to rest, but not before his hearse takes him on one last trip around his hometown - and specifically through Louisville's economically depressed, "hyper-segregated" West End, in the words of Phillip M Bailey, another west Louisville native and a reporter for the Courier-Journal, the local newspaper.

"In the end, his wishes were, 'I want to go through west Louisville. I want to go through the Russell neighbourhood, the Shawnee neighbourhood'," says Bailey. "I think it's the exclamation point on him saying, 'Louisville is the greatest'. He really loved where he was from."

Ali did once call his city the "greatest", but he also mentioned it when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War.

"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" he said in 1967.

Legend has it Ali threw his 1960 Olympic gold medal into the Ohio river after he was refused service at a downtown Louisville restaurant because he was black.

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image captionMuhammad Ali receives the gold medal he would later claim to have thrown in the Ohio river because of discrimination in Louisville

Violet Montgomery, who used to hire the Ali brothers as babysitters and still lives across the street from his old house, says she remembers those days well - like the time when she and her husband tried to take their three children to a drive-in movie in Louisville in the 1950s only to be told, "We don't serve coloureds."

"That was my one and only incident with that because I didn't allow it to happen anymore. Not to my kids," she says. "I just kept them away from it."

Segregation is baked in to Muhammad Ali's story, and into the history of Louisville, and as the city prepares to lay its most famous son to rest, it is hard not to notice the lasting effect racism has had on the city.

"This is a very polite city and we don't always talk about those difficult issues like race," says Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League. "Louisville has grown a lot, but we do have far to go in order for Louisville to be, really, the greatest."

image captionAn abandoned apartment complex was painted in an attempt to beautify the Parkland neighbourhood

Retondo Halsell - who lives in a stately, two-storey house with columns across the alley from the Ali family home - still remembers when he was transferred from the traditionally all-black high school where Ali also went. For his last two years of high school, Halsell was bussed to one of the richest suburbs in east Louisville.

It was 1975, the beginning of court-mandated desegregation in Louisville, and in many other cities around the country.

"I'd never really seen white people before," Halsell recalls. "I was just totally in disarray."

At first Halsell and his friends started vandalising their new school in an effort to get sent back, but several months in, he accepted the transfer and settled in. He remembers that, as a teenager who grew up in a housing project, he was blown away by the size of his white friends' homes.

"I said to myself, 'Ooh, I'm gonna get me some property and I'm gonna fix it up, make it look like out here down where I live.' That's what inspired me to do this," he says, gesturing over his shoulder to his pristine home, the biggest on the block.

Today, Louisville is one of only two American cities that has continued system-wide desegregation programmes for schools, even after federal oversight of the district ended. The city opted to continue bussing kids sometimes long distances in order to ensure that schools are integrated.

media captionVisiting Muhammad Ali's first church

They are an outlier as the number of high-poverty schools serving a mainly minority student body are on the rise in other parts of the country.

"I think that's what's interesting about Louisville is people have really embraced the system," says Sarah Garland, author of the book Divided We Fail about desegregation in Louisville and executive editor of The Hechinger Report. "It's looked like they were about to elect a school board who was going to dismantle it, and [then] they haven't."

According to Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, in the 1970s both Louisville and Detroit, Michigan, had roughly the same population of black residents and the same degree of segregation in their schools. But Louisville was forced to desegregate while Detroit was not.

Today, Detroit is bankrupt with huge chunks of the city swallowed by intense poverty, while Louisville is thriving in comparison. Orfield makes the case that desegregation made the difference by disconnecting where a family bought its house from where their children were sent to school, and slowing the spread of urban ghettos.

image captionIn Louisville's West End, the life expectancy of residents is years lower than on the east side

"[Detroit] has left behind a huge empty city with the poorest of the poor, it basically can't function. Camden is like that. Cleveland is close to that. They're all cities that never tried to integrate anything," he says. "The legacy of segregation is harmful and it hurts everything."

By contrast, Louisville and its suburbs created one gigantic school district, and made it impossible for white families to avoid bussing. Garland says this meant that not only were black students able to take advantage of newer, more modern school facilities, but white families whose children were sent to poorer black schools successfully lobbied for more resources.

But desegregation couldn't fix everything, and even exacerbated some problems, like making it difficult for low-income parents without transportation to make it to their child's school. After 40 years of desegregation, the racial make-up of the city is still sharply divided along geographical lines.

"Economic development has been segregated in the city and that's a sort of geographic, physical puzzle - how do you roll back decades of housing discrimination?" says Garland.

image captionUS Housing and Urban Development data map shows black residents in green and white residents in orange

In Louisville, the eastern part of the city and the western part are split by what is known as the "Ninth Street Divide".

"They call Ninth Street the Berlin Wall from time to time," says Thomas Williams, a local lawyer.

The west part of town is predominantly African-American, while the east side is predominantly white. A person living in Parkland has a life expectancy that is about 10 years shorter than the city's overall, average life expectancy.

Homicides spiked to 84 in 2015, and 75% of those occurred on the west side of town. Two-thirds of the victims were black, even though African-Americans make up only 22% of the population.

Average income and education levels are lower, while rates of heart disease and diabetes are higher in the West End.

"Louisville is a very intensely segregated city," says Cathy Hinko, ‎executive director at Metropolitan Housing Coalition, a fair housing advocacy agency. "This kind of activity, whether it's intentional or not, still occurs."

According to Hinko, after overtly racist housing policies and discriminatory practices were made illegal, more mundane things like zoning laws have maintained segregation of the city and kept affordable housing out of wealthy neighbourhoods.

Bailey says that the city's tradition of "politeness" means simmering issues of racial disharmony can go unaddressed until flashpoints arise.

He pointed out the fact that, as he spoke to BBC News by phone, he was heading to a meeting on whether or not the University of Louisville should remove a Confederate monument adjacent to its campus.

"In 2016 we're having a serious, vicious debate about the Confederacy - about whether it's about race," he says. "We're having that debate in Louisville even as we're becoming a more diverse city."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionResidents lined up overnight for a chance to get tickets to Ali's memorial service

When ugly incidents do occur, however, locals are quick to use Muhammad Ali's legacy to bring people together.

In September 2015, vandals defaced the white walls of the Louisville Islamic Center, the mosque where Ali would go to worship when he was in town.

"Nazis speak Arabic," the graffiti read in bright red letters. "Moslems - Leave the Jews alone."

Dr Muhammad Babar took a moment to remember this incident at an interfaith memorial service for Ali at the mosque, two days after the boxer's death.

"Following the lead of the champ - the message of compassion, love and peace - the whole city came to whitewash the centre," he told the packed room.

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image captionMuhammad Ali made many visits back to Louisville, including the gala grand opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in 2005

The fact that the city was officially declared a "Compassionate City" in 2011 is mentioned readily whenever the issue of segregation is brought up. The city and its mayor, Greg Fischer, have made investing in the western part of the city a central tenet of its mandate for compassion.

This has taken many forms, like the Restorative Justice Louisville programme, which brings juvenile defendants together with the victims of their crimes to work out a suitable punishment and hopefully reduce recidivism.

media captionYoung boxers in Louisville on how Muhammad Ali inspired them

Even in death, Ali's legacy remains tied to Louisville's west side. On a micro-level, people like shop owner Tony Martin hope that renewed interest in Ali's life will bring more visitors to the museum.

On a macro level, Bailey says that - with thousands of people descending on Louisville for the funeral and the city rising to the occasion of international attention - he hopes lasting change will follow Ali's death.

"The spotlight is not just on Kentucky or on Louisville, but on a predominantly African-American part of Louisville that, even locally, is forgotten," he says.

"Now that Louisville's most famous, and probably most famous-ever son, has died, that puts us in a more reflective standpoint - thinking about what we want Louisville to be."