By Anne Jewell, VP, Executive Director
When I was a reporter, there were some stories I prayed about.
For example, when a Louisville woman was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing, I remember lying awake in my Oklahoma City hotel room, asking for help in telling her story the way her life and family deserved.
Twenty-two years later, I’m no longer in the news business, but I am still in the storytelling business. The best exhibits tell a great story.
Over the past few months, I’ve found myself pausing as I once did with certain news assignments. I was reflecting on images and words for our new exhibition, wanting to settle on the best ones to share the story of Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali as civil rights heroes.
The I Am Ali Festival gave Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory a wonderful opportunity to join a special celebration of Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali. The Champ was a big baseball fan, and in my research I came across this striking quote from Ali, calling Hank Aaron, “The only man I idolize more than myself.” That was the start of what became our newest exhibition, Ali & Aaron: United in The Fight, a tribute to these two titans who used their athletic achievements to advance the fight for civil rights and justice.
Back in the day, I was lucky enough to work with some of the best photojournalists a reporter could hope for, and I respect the power of pictures as a critical element of a strong story. For this poignant Ali & Aaron exhibit we needed someone who could create a world-class work of art, worthy of the subject matter. One that would inspire thought and leave a lasting impression.
I reached out to our neighborhood friends, Walter and Cathy Shannon, at the fantastic E&S Gallery just a couple of blocks from our museum. They connected us with Victor Sweatt, a Louisville painter who proved to be the perfect artist for this project.
Over the next few months, Victor and I met several times, discussing the concept, assessing the gallery it would grace, reviewing his sketches, and settling on the final rendering. I was very moved by his idea to place Ali and Aaron within the context of other powerful moments in civil rights history. As I researched the people and events in the mural for a guide that accompanies the piece, my emotions sometimes churned and I experienced a range of feelings, from sadness and anger to awe and hope.
Victor divided the monumental 10’ x 37’ canvas into two pieces and worked in his studio in the Portland neighborhood on the west side of Louisville, not far from Ali’s childhood home.
Victor’s favorite portion of the mural is the section that transitions from Hank Aaron kneeling in the batter’s box, to a sit-in at a segregated Woolworths counter in 1963 when peaceful protesters endured abuses such as condiments being dumped on them. Here is the historic photo that Victor referenced, and how it translated into his painting:
Ali & Aaron: United in The Fight includes an interactive element for visitors. On one of the gallery walls they can post their personal answers to the questions, “What beliefs do you go to bat for?” and “What freedoms do you fight for?”
Here are some of my favorite postings so far from our guests:
For me, this exhibit has been a throwback to my journalism days in several ways, but there is a significant element that makes it different. Oftentimes with a news story, there’s a definitive end to it. You finish the story, and when it’s wrapped you move on to the next assignment.
But the story we’re sharing with Ali & Aaron: United in The Fight is still unfolding. We’ve captured a few chapters of it on our walls. I like to imagine that maybe some people experiencing the exhibit will remember it and be inspired to take action toward a future where justice and human rights are a given, not a struggle. Because even though the piece honors the legacies of these two great athletes as civil rights icons, it also shows you don’t have to be a hall of famer or heavyweight champ to stand up, speak out, and make a difference for the better.
Even if it’s just a stickie-note on a wall for starters:
Editor’s Note - Ali & Aaron: United in The Fight will be on display through October 8.