Monday, June 6, 2016

Should Louisville Replace the Confederate Statue with One of Muhammad Ali?


With the recent death of legendary boxer (and Kentuckian) Muhammad Ali, at least one person has suggested that a statue of Ali replace the Confederate statue that the city is removing from the University of Louisville's campus.

At first glance, it sounds like a simple, straight-forward idea. Ali was born in Louisville, had a legendary career as one of the best boxers ever, perhaps even "The Greatest" as he claimed, had a larger-than-life persona and was one of the most famous people on the planet over the past four or five decades. He won an Olympic Gold medal and three professional championships in the glorious heavyweight division when boxing was extremely popular. He worked as a social activist and has been seen as an icon for African-American athletes.  

The Confederate statue, meanwhile, can be viewed as a relic from the distant past, commemorating a long-dead attempted revolution and people who are long gone from the realm of the living. It may not be an appropriate fit in today's world and political and social culture.

I, however, am generally not a supporter of removing all Confederate symbols, especially in this state whose post-war legacy was so complicated and so tied to a Confederate culture. Monuments like this tell an important tale of state history that people should understand and removing such monuments may leave the impression that such Confederate ties did not exist. They did exist and were very real throughout the state - this statue is more than a story in a history book, it is physical evidence of that history and cannot deliver such a message if it is hidden from view.

I intend this post, however, to focus not on the issues of this statue's removal since it seems to be a done deal, but, instead, on the suggestion of a possible replacement for it

As listed above, there are many good reasons to commemorate Ali, perhaps more than I can recall. Ali, however, was not perfect or immune from controversies or struggles. He was very human, with a legacy of positives and negatives. He publicly converted to Islam and even changed his name; this occurred in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and Ali was Aftican-American, making his decisions even more unpopular. He later refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, serving time in jail and giving up his heavyweight boxing championship, stirring more controversy and making his name even more well-known, villainous to some, heroic to others. In the last years of his life, he fought against Parkinson's Disease, but continued to make public appearances even when his health was not the greatest. When his life ended, he was a popular, even beloved, figure who had mostly overcome the controversies of the past in the public's mind.

It overall may be fair to say that if anyone in Kentucky over the last fifty or one hundred years deserves a statue in such a public setting, it would be hard to find a better candidate than Muhammad Ali, warts and all. His life was a complicated one, perhaps an appropriate representative of a complicated world. 

With that said, I do have a series of thoughts and questions about the idea of a statue in his honor.

1. Would the statue be of Ali the man, or of Ali the hero? Would it be life-sized or a colossus meant to awe viewers?

2. What image of him or what pose would be used? Would it be the famous photograph of him looking down at Sonny Liston in the boxing ring, as I included at the start of this post? Or would the preference be to use an image of him in a more peaceful pose? Like the "Elvis postage stamp debate," would it feature the younger Ali or older Ali? 

3. What part of his life would a monument represent? Would it focus solely on his boxing career, leaving out so much else? Or would it include his outside the ring activities? Would it (signage or plaques associated with the statue) discuss his name change and religious conversion, not to mention his association with a sect that is considered a "hate group?" Would it tell about his Olympic gold medal and, if so, would it include the story of him throwing the medal into the Ohio River? 

If it served as a commemoration of his entire life, would it focus only on objective factual statements (perhaps "he objected to enlistment in the army and spent time in jail") or would it use flowery language to show him in a more positive light (such as "he sacrificed his championship status and years of his career to bravely stand up for his beliefs by refusing military induction.")?

4. Would his post-boxing life be included? If so, would that describe just his charitable activities and the awards and honors he received, or would his Parkinson's Disease be part of it? If the latter, how do you frame it - simply state he had that disease or word it more like "he courageously battled Parkinson's Disease for over thirty years" to sharpen his image as a brave hero?

5. In other words, would a statue or monument be created to tell his whole story or just part of it? Would its purpose be one of objectivity or, as with most monuments, hero worship? Would the controversies in his life be fully disclosed, partially mentioned or totally ignored?

This country has recently been going through a discussion of monuments and symbols from years or decades ago and one thought I've frequently seen is that "these monuments tell us as much about the people who erected them (and their times) as about the monument's actual subject." If so, won't any monument that our generation creates say something about us? What do we want that message to be? Should we consider that when creating a statue or memorial, or just wait and let future history decide at the appropriate time? The world may "little note nor long remember" our day-to-day activities, but monuments of granite or other such material do last for a long time. Should we care? Is thinking about questions like this a good use of time and energy or is it an act of pretentiousness, as if what the future thinks of us should matter? 

What if the future earth ends up like that of Star Trek or of John Lennon's Imagine - full of peace, racial harmony, prosperity, and "no religion too?" Will people of such a generation appreciate an image of a man who was famous for punching others, trying to knock them out, and for a public religious conversion and association with the Nation of Islam, which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group? Or what other changes will create a different cultural feel in the distant future? 

An Ali statue might be "politically correct" now, especially compared to Confederate iconography that currently is not though it once was acceptable to most of society, but it may not be so in 100+ years. Times and sensitivities will change again, like they have since many of the Confederate symbols were created. Is that a consideration in creating a new monument or does our inability to predict the future render that question irrelevant? Should we worry only about our own current beliefs and standards - which we can control - or do unknown future opinions matter? If we build such a memorial, is it for us or for our decndants?

Also, perhaps the key questions which might need answering on this topic include who controls or owns "our" memory of Muhammad Ali and who decides how to commemorate his life? A local committee? A public opinion poll? The artist who wins the commission? The person or group who finances the project? These are the types of questions that my series on George Barnard's Abraham Lincoln statue evoked last year, as this is a similar situation, though in foresight not hindsight. 

Resolving these issues will possibly lead to us knowing how people of our era will answer many of the previous questions I posed. 

Anyway, this started out as a brief post about the idea of a Muhammad Ali statue, but ended up being longer than I expected. It is not a pure "Civil War" post, but historical memory is a concept I have discovered since joining the blogosphere and this topic fits that niche, with the tie to the Confederate statue and its removal, so I think it is appropriate for this blog and worthy of some thought. Perhaps I have overdone it and given too much thought to hypotheticals, but I have enjoyed this little exercise. 


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