Ken Burns talks to Jacobin about revolutionary Muhammad Ali
It affected him totally. He was born in the early 1940s in Jim Crow, Louisville, Kentucky. He had to look through a chain-link fence as white children played at an amusement park he couldn’t enter. His father was a painter of some talent, but he couldn’t find a job, so he had to work as a sign painter, and he got volcanic anger about it. Imagine what it was like in the 1950s, as a young boy the same age, more or less, as Emmett Till, to see the body tortured, mutilated and murdered in an open casket because his mother wanted the world see what had been done to her little boy.
Ali seemed to be born with the feeling that he had a purpose in life. He was exuberant; he was funny; he took risks. He was just in love with life. And everyone had a feeling he was going somewhere. He was talkative. When he found boxing as a vocation, he adopted it like a duck in the water.
Louisville was essential, and not just for the usual things that apartheid does in a negative way. Ali grew up – unlike many opponents he would later face, such as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman or Larry Holmes – in a relatively comfortable neighborhood in Louisville’s West End, on Grand Avenue, which was home to many blacks. class. It ultimately gave him some sort of confidence, a protective layer, and made him flow into all worlds.
In fact, when he returned from the 1960 Olympics in Rome with gold medals, the city fathers – of course, all white – in Louisville formed a union to protect him. He had this amazing contract that no one in boxing had ever had – all of his expenses were paid, he got a salary, and he got a huge chunk of the door. It is an incredible and complicated story. Louisville adds and subtracts in an interesting way.