Thousands of Muhammad Ali’s admirers, from the unknown to the powerful, packed a Louisville arena on Friday to honor the great boxer and humanitarian.
They followed a script outlined by Ali himself, and the service bore his signature dedication to openness and inclusion.
Family, famous friends, imams, pastors, rabbis and a former president of the United States took turns at the podium, as did black and white, young and old. They stood before a backdrop of the American flag on one side and on the other the Olympic flag, with its interlocking rings that represent the varied nations of the Earth.
Ali, before his death a week ago, had dictated that the service be open to all. More than 15,000 people poured into the KFC Yum Center to fulfill that wish.
The service began with a reading of the Qur’an that included an admonition to “repel ugliness with beauty”. Louisville pastor Kevin Cosby followed with a story about how “before James Brown said ‘I’m black and proud’, Muhammad Ali said: ‘I’m black and I’m pretty’.”
It was an act of subversion in the 1960s, Cosby said, because “Ali loved black people when black people had trouble loving themselves”.
The crowd remained mostly silent, but occasionally burst into a cheer – “Ali! Ali! Ali!” – that shook the floor of the arena. “I can just hear Muhammad now, saying, ‘Well I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president,” said former president Bill Clinton, drawing a laugh.
Growing reflective, Clinton said he would never forget when Ali took “the last steps to light the Olympic flame when I was president”, and recalled: “I was still weeping like a baby seeing his hands shake, and his legs shake, and knowing, by God, he was going to make those last few steps.”
“The flame would be lit, the fight would be won, his spirit would be affirmed,” he said. During the second half of Ali’s life, the former president said, “he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandel was kept in prison in South Africa.
“That is, in the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have. Every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart,” he added. “We should honor him by letting our gifts go out into the world.”
The solemn celebration mixed with levity, brought in party by actor Billy Crystal. He met Muhammad Ali more than four decades ago during Crystal’s first television appearance – doing an impression of Ali. “He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw,” Crystal said, and then smiled. “And those were his own words.”
More poignantly, he recalled a time Ali traveled with him to Jerusalem, where Crystal had won an award. “The most famous Muslim man in the world, honoring his Jewish friend,” he said.
Crystal took a jab at Trump: “He taught us it’s better to build bridges between people than walls.”
The crowd leapt to their feet during a talk by the rabbi Michael Lerner, when he said: “We will not tolerate politicians putting down Muslims,” in a clear reference to Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.
“We know what it’s like to be demeaned,” Lerner said.
Earlier in the day, Ali’s hearse had made a slow procession to the Cave Hill cemetery. People lined the streets of downtown Louisville, some mournful, some celebratory, and when they tried to describe the scene they returned to one word again and again: “History.”
On Ninth Street, the hearse carrying the body of Ali moved slowly. As it passed, the crowd burst into a full-throated shout of “Ali! Ali!”, as though to wake the great boxer from sleep.
Helicopters, police cars and dozens of stretch limousines filled with Ali’s famous friends accompanied the casket as it moved through his hometown, passing his old school, where he would race against the bus on his morning training runs, and the pink bungalow which was his childhood home, where neighbors remembered him shadow boxing against the old tree in the yard.
The processional moved throughout Louisville, visiting some of the places that bear his name: the Ali Center museum, and the boulevard named for him. The route took in Broadway, where Cassius Clay, as he was then known, joined a parade celebrating his gold medal when he returned from the 1960 Olympics, to a city that greeted him as a hero but remained divided on racial lines.
Young men ran alongside the flower-strewn motorcade as it passed, just as young fans had chased Ali adoringly during training runs at his sporting peak. One carried a banner that read: “Ali is the greatest – thanks 4 all the memories.” At one point, so many bunches of flowers were thrown across the front of the hearse that the driver had to run the windshield wipers in order to see through the glass.
Overhead, a small plane flew by trailing the message: “Muhammad Ali, the greatest.”
Ali – who died last Friday at age 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s syndrome – arose from a segregated neighborhood in this Kentucky city to become not only the most famous African American in the world, but the most famous man. He climbed to the pinnacle of his sport on the rubble of Jim Crow discrimination in the US, and crumbling colonial power around the world.
Some historians argue that only extraordinary figures can change the world, while others believe change happens when world events shift and align. Both camps could find solace in Ali. He was an extraordinary figure who stood at intersecting fault lines in American, and world, history. It was no coincidence that some of his most legendary fights – the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila – took place in former colonies, where leaders of emerging countries craved a piece of Ali the living legend.
For Ali, beyond the hype and the circus of those battles, the opportunity was always to connect with his own unique message of global brotherhood.
Such was the mood on Friday morning as hundreds of mourners and admirers gathered at an Ali memorial outside the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville. They added wreaths and banners and signs to a pile that had accumulated over the past week, rapidly growing into a mountain of remembrance.
Louisville resident Vanessa Moore and her daughter, 26-year-old Marcela, stood shoulder to shoulder and stared at the photos and drawings of the city’s hero.
“We just can’t tear ourselves away,” Vanessa said. “Such a great man is gone.”
For years, Marcela said, the family attended local football and basketball games and whenever the great boxer made an appearance a chant would arise from the crowd, just as it had as his motorcade passed: “Ali! Ali!”
Vanessa teaches fifth grade, and said many of her students wrote papers and made projects about Ali in February, for Black History Month.
“Now I just wonder how they feel,” she said. “My heart goes out to them.”
The Rev Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader and former presidential candidate, had stopped by the site on Thursday afternoon, and kneeled to sign a banner proclaiming Ali “the Greatest Forever”. Ali’s most impressive accomplishment, Jackson said, was to exercise “the proper use of fame”.
“He turned scars into stars. Instead of getting bitter, he got better,” Jackson said.
The minister grew up in South Carolina, the son of a professional boxer, and said Ali had always inspired him – especially in his penchant for rhythm and rhyme.
“You’ve got to be southern to talk that stuff,” Jackson said, smiling. As a young man Jackson was an aide to Martin Luther King Jr, and he recalled 4 April 1967, when King was in a New York City hotel preparing to give a famous speech against the Vietnam war “and in walked Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali”, he said.
It was a bold statement for Ali, who was at the pinnacle of his athletic career. Just a few days later Ali would upend that career, and much of the world’s opinion, when he refused to be drafted by the US army.
“But he went from being reviled and rejected to being revered,” Jackson said.
The two-day remembrance for Ali had started on Thursday with a traditional Muslim prayer service at the Freedom Hall arena. Ali himself had requested that the service be open to all. So alongside Ali’s famous friends such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Lennox Lewis, Don King and others, more than 14,000 admirers were in attendance.
Imam Zaid Shakir, a leading US Muslim scholar, greeted the crowd with an introduction that encompassed Ali’s open worldview: “We welcome all of you here today. We welcome the Muslims, we welcome the members of other faith communities, we welcome the law enforcement community,” he said. “All were beloved to Muhammad Ali.”
Speakers lined up for Friday’s service ranged from Bill Clinton to the comedian Billy Crystal. High-profile foreign leaders – Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – were cut from the program at the last moment, to make room for two other, as yet unnamed, speakers, according to Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell.
Will Smith – who portrayed Ali in the eponymous 2001 film – and the former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis were pallbearers at the funeral.
The US secret service organized security at the center, and had swept for bombs before the service. Throughout downtown Louisville, police and security vehicles jostled with tour buses full of fans. The heavy security presence reinforced the sense that Ali’s ability to rile opponents did not end with his death, especially in a time of increased attacks on mosques and Muslims, after terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and during a presidential campaign in which a leading candidate has suggested banning all Muslim immigrants for a time.
For Ali, who lived through a time of terrible discord and became known around the globe as a great unifier, his final journey, at a time of division in America, might be read as a moment of healing.
Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield said the scale of the crowds turning out for Ali was proof of that. Ali, he said, was “probably up above, looking down and seeing all the different races come together”.
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