Louisville Unveils New Look For the Muhammad Ali International Airport

Kentucky’s Louisville International Airport (SDF) has been renamed for Muhammad Ali. City authorities announced in January that the airport would be renamed for the well-known boxer and multiple World Heavyweight champion, and the pledge became a reality on June 6.

As a part of Ali Week — a week-long celebration of the many accomplishments of the internationally known boxer — SDF unveiled new branding and a logo. Created by Badge Design, the new logo features Ali’s arms raised in victory with a butterfly in the background. The logo shifts in color from red to orange symbolizing strength and power. Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, and would have turned 77 on the day the new imagery was unveiled, according to the Courier Journal.

City officials, Ali’s relatives, and Louisville tourism officials were on hand for Thursday’s celebration at Muhammad Ali International Airport. Lonnie Ali, Ali’s widow, noted that although her late husband had a well-known fear of flying, he spent the majority of his 54 years traveling the world. He did so with a desire to meet new friends as well as learn new customs, and Lonnie said she was hopeful that travellers would embrace her husband’s worldview. Echoing Ali's famously self-referential title, Lonnie said her late husband would likely dub the airport "The Greatest."

Karen Williams, president and CEO of Louisville Tourism, said the renaming and rebranding of the airport would be beneficial to the city. Williams believed that the focus on Ali will enhance the city’s tourism, as well as its interest in inclusion, according to Louisville Business First.

Maryum Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter who is also a licensed social worker and juvenile youth counselor, praised the renaming. She noted that the renaming could impact Muslim Americans, particularly Black Muslims such as Ali. The younger Ali said she has been a victim of hyper policing and surveillance by TSA authorities, and like other Muslim Americans, was unable to check her baggage curbside because she was on a watch list. Muslims in Louisville have all experienced strange looks and surveillance while going through airports, NPR noted.

Many have said that being Muslim, or wearing traditional clothing such as a hijab, will now be a point of pride at an airport that is named for a famous Muslim.

Many believe Muhammad Ali would be proud of the recognition not only for himself but for Muslims. He identified with Islam throughout his life, according to NPR. Ali trained as an amateur boxer from age 12 and won his first Olympic Medal in the light heavyweight division during the 1960 Summer Olympics. He turned professional and converted to Islam in the same year. He also changed his name to Muhammad Ali and was initially associated with the Nation of Islam, during which time he considered Malcolm X a mentor.

After winning the heavyweight championship of the world against Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali refused induction into the Army because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and was stripped of his boxing titles. His stance earned him international notoriety, but he became a voice of Black athletes challenging racism in the sports industry, Al Jazeera wrote. His conviction for refusing induction into the armed forces was overturned in 1971.

Ali is considered the greatest heavyweight boxer of the 20th century and held three titles. His epic boxing matches against formidable opponents such as Joe Frazier (the “Thrilla in Manilla”) and George Foreman (“Rumble in the Jungle”) are widely viewed as the greatest sporting events of the era. Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, but remained active in public life as a humanitarian and philanthropist until his death on June 3, 2017.

Given Ali’s international stature, many believe the renaming of the airport was long overdue. In January, Mayor Greg Fischer lauded the name change and recognized Ali’s international influence. “Muhammad Ali belonged to the world, but he only had one hometown, and fortunately, that is our great city of Louisville,” Fischer said, according to the Courier Journal. “ Muhammad became one of the most well-known people to ever walk the Earth and has left a legacy of humanitarianism and athleticism that has inspired billions of people.... It is important that we, as a city, further champion The Champ's legacy.”

An airport working group began meeting in 2017 to consider the name change and surveyed local, regional, and national audiences. The survey revealed that while Ali was universally recognized, many people were unaware he was a Louisville native. The board felt Louisville could benefit from the association of the city with Ali. The Louisville Regional Airport Authority Board approved the change but the airport code, SDF, Sandford Field will not change.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.