by Taylor Killough
I knew it as soon as I walked in the door.
Well, maybe it wasn’t that fast. But within minutes of my first time at the Muhammad Ali Center, I knew it was a place unlike any other. I knew it was a place I needed to be.
I was 22, fresh from undergrad and new to Louisville, looking for direction and meaning and someplace to land for a while. Volunteering at a middle school in Newburg, and that particular day, I was chaperoning a near-the-end-of-the-year field trip with hundreds of rowdy middle schoolers. It wasn’t a day I was expecting to go well, let alone change my life.
As we rode the longest escalator in the state of Kentucky (before the Yum! Center was constructed) to the top floor of the award-winning exhibits, we were greeted in 27 different languages. We had a sense of awe and greatness about the place before we even reached the top. And throughout the three floors of exhibits, that sense never stopped.
When we left, I knew I would be back.
And not long after, I was. That fall, I was lucky enough to be hired as the newest member of the Center’s education team, though I suspect I bugged them enough that they hired me just so I would leave them alone.
Through a strange set of circumstances, the newest member on staff became one of the first faces folks would see when they entered the Center – and certainly, the voice they heard the most. It was my job to introduce large groups of people to the Center and to Muhammad Ali’s full story - to Muhammad Ali as a symbol, and all the things he stood for.
I was terrified. Not only was I afraid to speak in public, I left every day feeling like I hadn’t said enough – like I hadn’t done justice to Muhammad Ali’s life, legacy, and love for the world. Eventually I found my voice and I learned to let the Center speak for itself – and it does, in volumes, if you take the time to look.
Though I left after two years – young folks get restless souls, and I am no exception – my experience there shaped me and stayed with me. Sure, it was my first real job, so I grew in professional ways - but it was a deeper sense of America, Blackness, compassion, principle, evolution of character, service to others, and trust in one’s self that stayed the most.
It was, in essence, a deeper sense of Muhammad Ali.
A few years later, another strange set of circumstances and a job offer with Kertis Creative that brought me back a few short months ago to the city that - though I’m not originally from here – feels most like my home. The same city that raised, but didn’t always love, Muhammad Ali. But he it loved anyway.
So last Friday morning, as crowds gathered in the places that were so important to him during his life’s journey, we were lucky to witness that love up close.
It took a while. For several hours in the hot sun, daycares, families, and entire businesses gathered on the Louisville streets early to wait for the procession. Blankets swept over small the small patches of ground between the sidewalk and the street, Louisvillians dressed in homemade t-shirts – bedazzled, bejeweled, unique, proud – wrapping the bodies Muhammad Ali proclaimed beautiful and demanded be confident; the bodies Ali demanded the world love. Wrapping them like a hug from the man himself. The hits of other icons fallen – Prince, Michael Jackson – playing in the background, keeping spirits high and feet shuffling.
It took a while, and then it was quick. The rumble of the news helicopters overhead drowned out by the chants of “Ali! Ali!” “Bomaye!” “We love you Champ!” A young boy stood with his family in the middle of the street, beckoning the caravan to hurry his way, saying, “Come on, Champ! Don’t let them keep you down! Don’t let them beat you!”, his fist in the air, through which thousands of flowers flew to land on the hearse, as close to Muhammad Ali as many will ever be.
Later, at the memorial service (which was perfect, and exactly what Muhammad Ali would have wanted), people from all over the globe – and from some very famous corners of it - took to the stage to pay their respects to the Champ.
But the most thunderous applause came at every mention of Louisville. Hometown of the Greatest, and by extension, the greatest city in the world.
You may think I’m exaggerating, but its true: “it’s not bragging if you can back it up.” I saw it. We all saw it. We were the greatest version of our city that day, when we realized the dream of a young west Louisville boy:
“I used to dream that I was running down Broadway in downtown, Louisville, Kentucky, and all of the people were gathered in the street waving at me and clapping and cheering my name, then all of a sudden I just took off flying.”
Muhammad Ali wanted his life to be bigger. He wanted his life to make yours better.
If he had been here that day, the Champ would be proud. He would be humbled. He would still be Ali, but now that responsibility belongs to all of us.
At Kertis Creative, we know its people – and their stories - who make a city great, and we are proud to document the people, businesses, and organization who make it so, and fight every day to make it even better. We are honored to spend our days in the great city of Louisville.
Our team captured a few of the stories that day, though we know there are so many more memories and stories of Muhammad Ali and what he means to this city. See those photos here
RIP Champ – may we carry on the spirit of your life, and of that day you came home to say goodbye.