Louisville's Muhammad Ali would have been ‘right in the middle’ of fight to win justice for Breonna Taylor, say neighbours

Andrew Buncombe
·7-min read
Louisville resident Muhammad Ali would have been Breonna Taylor's advocate, say neighbours (Getty Images)
Louisville resident Muhammad Ali would have been Breonna Taylor's advocate, say neighbours (Getty Images)

One of the things about which Lawrence and Violet Montgomery were certain of the young man who for many years was their neighbour, was his desire to become a famous boxer.

Such was the bubbling passion displayed by the teenager, who went by the name Cassius Clay, that he would run and train in the morning before school, shadow boxing in the street. When the school bus came, he ran alongside it, rather than taking a ride. The other children would laugh, but he did not mind

“He was always saying, ‘One day I will the heavyweight champion of the world’,” said Mr Montgomery, aged 86.

Another thing of which they are certain about the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali, who would win the world heavyweight title not just once but on three occasions, and who died in 2016 at the age of 74, was that had he been alive today, he would have joined the campaign for justice for Breonna Taylor, the young African American killed by police during a raid in March, just miles from where he grew up. Her death triggered widespread protests and a demand for justice from her family and others.

“[He] would be right in the middle of it, trying to get justice for Breonna, like they've been doing ever since that happened to her,” said Mr Montgomery’s wife, Violet, aged 87.

“I mean, I don't know what I would do if someone just bust into my house without saying who they are, why they're there. Not even a knock - just bust your door down.”

The Montgomerys still live on Grand Ave in Louisville’s West End, opposite the small pink-painted home, outside of which stands a post, informing visitors of its famous former occupant.

In the house next to where Ali and his parents lived, the Montgomerys raised three children, - Lawrence Jr, Linda and Karen. All are now aged in the 60s. The youngest, Karen Montgomery Williams, 65, helps manage the couple’s funeral home business.

The couple are a little hazy about the specific dates but are certain that starting when he was aged 12 or 13, the man who could capture the attention of the world, started baby sitting for them.

“He never wanted money - only bologna sandwiches,” said Mr Montgomery. His wife added: “And they would have to be quiet, especially if boxing was on the TV.”

Along with Ali’s parents, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr and Odessa Clay, the Montgomerys represented part of the city’s black lower middle class.

Mr Montgomery worked for the postal service. He said often when he returned home from a night shift, his young neighbour would be shadow-boxing in the street, or beneath a tree.

Usually, he would already have run to Chickasaw Park and back by then. Mrs Montgomery said when the school bus arrived, the teenager would often run alongside it, to improve his fitness.

“Sometimes he asked me to hold my hands up so he could shadow box with my hands,” Mr Montgomery said. Did it hurt? “No, but he always made a sound with his mouth when he threw a punch."

He said he was always saying he would be the heavyweight champion. “I’d tell him he was not big enough.”

As it was, Ali would go on to true boxing greatness - wining the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and capturing the professional heavyweight title on three occasions - in 1964, 1974 and 1978.

Yet, as Ms Montgomery said, as she sat with albums of photographs and press clippings and displayed the pennant the legend was given for carrying the Olympic torch through the streets of Louisville in 1984, ahead of the Los Angeles games, and which he gifted to them, Ali was much more than that.

In the 1960s the man who dubbed himself “The Greatest” was an outspoken advocate for racial justice. Having converted to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and made friends with figures such as Malcolm X, in 1967 he famously refused to join the military draft for the Vietnam War. He was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.

While he remained on bond while his lawyers challenged the verdict, eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971, because his boxing licence was stripped he was unable to fight for three years of his prime.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he told his critics.

Lawrence and Violet Montgomery still live on Louisville’s Grand AveAndrew Buncombe
Lawrence and Violet Montgomery still live on Louisville’s Grand AveAndrew Buncombe

He added: “And shoot them for what? They never called me [the n-word], they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father….Shoot them for what?”

Ali died in 2016 having long suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a condition some experts said was likely made worse by massive amount of pounding his brain and body endured during his long career. Amid the eulogies he received, many pointed that while white America may have eventually come to embrace him - moved by his shaking as he lit the Olympic flame for the Atlanta games of 1996 - he was once seen a threat.

[“That’s] because he was a black man speaking up for what he believed in,” said Ms Montgomery.

Her youngest daughter, Karen Montgomery Williams, said she was four or fie when Ali baby sat for them. She said he was always jumping around, or performing magic tricks. They nicknamed him Gigi.

“My parents were in a bowling league, and so a couple of nights a week, Gigi would come over,” she said. She also agreed, had he still been alive he would have joined the campaign for justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year African American woman shot dead by Louisville police when they raided her home in March.

The young woman’s death sparked protests not just in Louisville but across the nation, and helped fuel the demands for racial justice. Authorities in Louisville decided not to charge the three officers involved in the shooting, but her mother Tamika Palmer, is leading a campaign to secure justice.

Boxer - photographed in 2010 - suffered from Parkinson’s disease, possibly worse by his fighting careerGetty
Boxer - photographed in 2010 - suffered from Parkinson’s disease, possibly worse by his fighting careerGetty

“He wasn't a person that was just for himself,” said Ms Montgomery Williams.

“You know, he knew what he wanted to do. He knew what he wanted to be, and that's what he set his sights on. But he never had a harsh word. I never saw him angry.”

The Muhammad Ali Centre, established 15 years ago in Louisville to promote social justice, said the fighter would have been saddened for those who had been hurt or who lost their lives during this time of civil unrest.

“He would have empathy toward the families who lost their loved ones. Muhammad is known the world over as a fighter in the ring, but also as a fighter for justice and equality,” the centre said in a statement.

“Muhammad made his own sacrifices during the civil rights movement of the sixties, and he was willing to pay the price—knowing that he was fighting for something larger than himself. While Muhammad was involved in protests, he protested peacefully and did not harm people or property.”

It said he would also have wanted Louisville “to heal, to listen to and learn from one another, to respect one another, to heal, and to come out brighter on the other side”.

The Montgomerys said they last saw Muhammad Ali perhaps a year before his death, at the annual celebration organised by the Ali centre.

They said Ali’s fourth wife, Yolanda Williams, better known a Lonnie, called them to his table. He recognised but could only manage one word, their name - Montgomery.

Ms Montgomery said in the 50 years or so since Ali refused the draft and was at the front of demands for racial inclusion, racism in the United States had not gone away, but things had become “more subtle”.

She said under the presidency of Donald Trump, any subtlety had disappeared. She said she believed the president was using “coded language” to stir up racial division.

“His language. His body language, his refusing to accept the fact that there's white supremacy going on in this country,” she said. “There’s just a lot of things that he says and does that makes me afraid for this country.”

At times, she allowed herself to dream of a different world.

“Muhammad? Oh, if he was still living -and I'm sorry that things happened to him the way they did - he’d be ready to run for president of the United States,” she said.

“He’s loved all over the world, not just in America. He is loved all over the world.”

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