Ali’s Return Should Be Celebrated

There’s been some buzz around town about the New York Times piece written by local freelancer Michael Lindenberger. You can read it online, free, at this Toronto Star link. The story has attracted criticism (Velocity listed Lindenberger as one of “This Week’s Losers“) , calling the story “ignorant and inflammatory.”

I know Michael, and think he’s an excellent reporter. I respect his perspective on journalism, and have worked with him on a few projects for LEO. That said, I think his take on Louisville’s attitude about Ali is way off base. The story’s second graph is a quote from a bartender at a VFW post still bitter about Ali’s four decades old decision not to go to Vietnam. I don’t know how hard you have to look to find that kind of bitter old man, but I guess the VFW would be a good place to look. I simply question the judgment of basing a New York Times story on the opinion of such a person.

The writer chose to create a controversy where there arguably is none. Ali, who bought a home in eastern Jefferson County in January and plans to spend at least part of his time there, is as close to a cult hero as it comes in this town. I’ve been to a dozen events over the years in which the Champ has entered the room to the most reverential of receptions. That the Ali Center downtown has become a successful project is further testament to Ali’s popularity.

Which makes me question why, in reporting Ali’s anticipated return to his hometown, Lindenberger would choose to write a story that suggests that Louisville as a whole harbors a racist, resentful attitude in its treatment of Ali. If you surveyed the city, I’d be surprised if you found one person in a hundred with an unkind word to say about Ali, and most would be thrilled to welcome him home.

Lindenberger’s story suggests that a significant contingent of local citizens still resent Ali for his decision 40 years ago. He got an editor at the New York Times to believe him, and wrote a piece that reflects negatively on the city.

4 thoughts on “Ali’s Return Should Be Celebrated

  1. I must disagree here, Rick. I thought Michael’s piece was well done, and I think his premise — how much different is Louisville now than it was when Ali left? — is a fascinating starting point for discussion. To argue that Louisville has lost all its racist elements is patently absurd. Look at the housing situation here, to start. The city is still segregated. No question about it. The Ninth Street ramp remains the barrier to the West End; the statistics bear out that the vast majority of poor in Louisville, of people who have substandard housing, are African American. And when was the last time you saw a group of African Americans hanging out at The Summit? It may not be as obvious as saying “whites only,” but it doesn’t have to be.

    Michael’s story as a whole does not suggest that Louisville harbors a “racist, resentful attitude” about Ali; it says there are those elements that exist, but as a whole we’re still a little confused about such things. I think that could be said for most of this country, which lives with the savage guilt of racism but still under a generation or two of old folks who lived and believed that garbage firsthand.

    And where else would you go to talk to veterans who lived through the Ali controversy than a VFW post? That’s just a cheap shot.

    I can understand how Velocity might miss the point on something like this and issue a knee-jerk, defensive reaction, calling a local reporter doing nuanced, thought-provoking work for a major news outlet a “loser.” That sort of behavior is expected. But should we ignore reality just because we want to impress someone like Ali? Or The New York Times? Lindenberger asked and provided a variety of answers to an interesting question, one that definitely cuts to the bone of a lot of our perceptions of ourselves around here. He should be commended for it.

  2. i also find it incredible that people can’t have an honest look at their own community. in some ways, this is all predictable. those of us who live around here only go to certain areas. if those areas don’t exhibit the problems that we might see in other areas where we never go, we assume there are no problems.

    it’s a very shallow understanding of our own community.

    and, of course, when someone writes something that’s contrary to our worldview, what do we do? the old tried-and-true shoot the messenger.

    this is how our national political leadership behaves, and lots of folks who are cheerleading in this ali/louisville situaion have plenty of criticism for that brand of B.S.

    understanding hard truths makes us stronger, not weaker.

  3. I wasn’t trying to say there isn’t racism in Louisville — it’s evident everywhere you look, especially in the media. It’s a serious problem that, for some who insulate themselves from it, is easy to ignore. My point was that Ali’s buying a home here is no reason to highlight a tiny percentage of people here who still resent him for a four-decades old act. There are better story lines regarding Ali. I don’t think the news media can provide too much coverage of race — it’s a compelling topic that deserves coverage on many fronts. Michael’s piece is well-written and will get people talking about a difficult subject — that’s good. To give the impression that the bartender’s attitude is common is objectionable.

  4. The story is pretty much perfectly balanced. There is the VFW guy saying Ali is a draft-dodger and unwelcome here, soon after followed by the flower shop manager saying she’s glad he’s back, that he’s a hero. Then you have mention of the fact that the Ali Center has received lukewarm public support, followed by the Mayor not taking a position on any of it. Next is the academic supporting the general idea that there are many people who still dislike Ali for a number of reasons; he even speaks to Louisville’s geography as being part of this psychic disconnect between the city and Ali. Then Paul Bather basically says the same thing. Finally, Georgia Powers tips the scales back to balance, saying Louisville is happy its “prodigal son” is returning.

    The balance in this piece, actually, is quite astounding, considering the subject matter. There is nothing remotely unfair about it, in my view. Lindenberger even writes at the top that Wayne Love is in a neighborhood in which some residents have recently taken an objectionable (well, let’s just say it: racist) stance on renaming a street for Dr. King.

    The fact that Ali bought a home here is, to me, very boring news. It means nothing other than that he’s decided to move. That’s a celebrity story — great. Why he’s coming back is compelling, but he won’t say, and it’s ridiculous to speculate. What he’s coming back too is, in many ways, the most interesting question to ask here.

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