Long before becoming a three-time world heavyweight champion boxer, a civil rights activist, and a global ambassador of peace, Muhammad Ali’s passion for boxing was discovered and groomed in Louisville, Kentucky. Back then, while he was still known as Cassius Clay Jr., no one could have predicted that the city where he was born and raised would produce one of the greatest boxers and leaders of the 20th century.
Following Ali’s death on June 3, 2016, Robert Holmes III, an educator also from Louisville, says he was divinely inspired to honor the hometown hero through the creation of a grassroots effort called the Global Friends of Muhammad Ali. The group’s first undertaking is to rename the Louisville International Airport to “Muhammad Ali International Airport.” On June 12, 2016, the group launched a petition on Change.org, calling on Ali fans to support an initiative that would pay tribute to the legendary boxer and the city that made him.
“Although some may see this as a simple name change, we have an opportunity to show the world our appreciation for Ali’s legacy and his life,” reads the petition. “It’s an opportunity to unite our city and the world in the name of Peace and Love. It’s what Ali was all about. We call upon people all over the globe to participate in our efforts. Ali inspired people all over the world to come together and shed our differences. This is an opportunity to unite in Ali’s life mission. We humbly invite you to join our effort to rename our airport to Muhammad Ali International (ALI).”
Initially, Holmes aimed to garner 5,000 signatures on the petition, but the amount of support he received soared after it was posted on MPowerChange.org, a prominent web-based Muslim community that engages in social justice and humanitarian efforts. Altogether, he has collected more than 14,000 signatures.
Despite receiving an overwhelming number of signatures and support from members of the Ali family, Holmes says the initiative has faced an impasse from Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, who has rejected the idea. Mayor Fischer’s spokesperson Chris Poynter confirmed in an email that “there is no active committee looking at the matter of renaming the airport, but the matter remains a topic of discussion.” He added that the power to change the name lies within the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, which “will ultimately make any decision to rename the airport.”
Holmes says the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, however, gave him the runaround for months. After he presented the signatures to members of their board, he was invited to make a presentation during their committee board meeting. He took off from work and was prepared to present but, once there, he was told that he would not be able to speak during the meeting. Instead, he rescheduled for another board meeting in February 2017. When he showed up to that meeting he realized, once again, that his name was left off of their meeting agenda and he was asked to come back in March. He did, but when he arrived, he quickly discovered that his name was omitted from their agenda. That’s when he realized the board had no intention of renaming the airport. “I walked out [of that meeting] because I knew that they were full of it,” he says. “My name wasn’t on the agenda again, and I did everything that I was supposed to do in terms of contacting them [ahead of time].” The Airport Authority Board told Black Enterprise that it “has no current plans to change the name of Louisville International Airport (SDF).”
But that’s not the only opposition he’s faced. “There are multiple groups in the city that, I found out, don’t want to do it,” says Holmes. On the other hand, people outside the city find pushback on the issue “mind-boggling.” Some outsiders have told Holmes that they had “assumed that the airport in Kentucky where [Ali] was born was already named Muhammad Ali International.”
Holmes spoke to the local press and made multiple media appearances in Louisville to garner support. But, still, that has not helped his effort. “I was interviewed by all the television stations here locally. Everybody was talking about it in the city. But the people who [can] actually make the changes, between the mayor and the regional board, did not want to touch it. And so the idea is sitting there.”
Nonetheless, like his role model Ali, Holmes says he’s not ready to give up on the fight. He’s now planning to take the initiative outside of Louisville to reignite new energy around the issue. “I’m only trying to do what the Lord has asked me to do and I’m only trying to do what’s right. This airport, which is generically named Louisville International Airport, should be named after its greatest citizen. There’s no question about that.”