“America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other, miracles can happen,” said Lonnie Ali at the public memorial service for her husband, Muhammad Ali.
The greatness of Ali began after he had a talk with retired Louisville Police Officer Joe Martin who taught him to box. That was the start of the man known to the world as ‘The Greatest.’
Ali died on Friday, June 3, 2016 at the age of 74. The world watched as Muhammad Ali’s life was celebrated in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. June 9-10. Two services filled to capacity, a procession through the streets of Louisville was a send-off fit for the King he was.
A traditional Muslim service was held on Thursday at Freedom Hall with a capacity crowd of 14,000 attending. The procession and Interfaith Memorial Service were held on Friday.
Although Ali touched the lives of so many throughout the world, the people of Louisville knew what others did not know. The procession route included a stretch of Broadway Street. In the earlier days, after Ali won his fights, he loved to come back to Louisville. He drove a big recreational vehicle west on Broadway, sometimes very fast, fast enough that the police would pull him over. But when they looked inside and saw it was the Champ, they would just smile and tell him to slow down. It is that incident and so many others that are unique to Louisville. Ali was loved by his hometown and he always made it clear that he indeed loved his hometown.
He was known for his bragging, known to many as the ‘Louisville Lip.’ He called himself “the greatest.” When others talked about his bragging, he would often say: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
The city of Louisville backed him up in a big way showing the world that he was ‘the Greatest’ when over 100,000 people lined the streets for 20 miles to say their final goodbye to the Champ. The procession originated from A. D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home. As it passed southeast, the crowd chanted: “Ali, Ali.”
Some began throwing flowers on the windshield of the hearse carrying their hometown hero. Children were running alongside the hearse throwing jabs in the air. People were running up to the hearse to kiss the roof.
As the cars traveled down Broadway, Hana Ali, the champ’s daughter, tweeted: “We just left the funeral home and are in the car now following our beautiful father in route to his final resting place, as his reoccurring dream is realized. When he was younger he said, ‘I used to dream that I was running down
Broadway in downtown Louisville, Kentucky and all of the people were gathered in the street waving at me and clapping and cheering my name. I waved back, and then all of a sudden I just took off flying. I dreamed that dream all the time.’”
When the procession made it to the little pink house on Grand Avenue in west Louisville, the heart of the African American community, those waiting wanted to touch the hearse. Ali’s children lowered the windows of the limos and began shaking hands with the people. The pink house on Grand Avenue is where Ali grew up.
One could only imagine the reaction of Ali’s children when they saw the many thousands who lined the streets of Louisville to pay their final respects to their father.
The procession made the final leg of the journey when it made the turn into Cave Hill Cemetery where Ali was buried. Thousands of rose petals lay at the entrance as spectators lined the entrance as Ali was taken to his final resting place. It was a scene that Louisville will never see again.
The Public Memorial Service at the KFC YUM Center was filled to capacity with 15,000 people attending. Celebrities came to say their final goodbyes including former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Orrin Hatch, both speakers on the program. Others include director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Whoopi Goldberg, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, boxing greats Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and soccer star David Beckham and others. Unable to attend because of his daughter’s graduation, President Barack Obama sent Valerie Jarrett as his representative. Min. Louis Farrakhan, boxing promoter Don King and Civil Rights Leader Jesse Jackson were also in attendance.
The three-hour interfaith service featured speakers from various religious denominations. The service began with prayers from the Quran from Ali’s Muslim faith and the moderator was an imam from Memphis. Two rabbis, a catholic priest, the leaders of two Indian tribes and a Baptist minister were all on the program.
The first speaker, Rev. Kevin W. Cosby, senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville referred to Ali as a “silver-tongued poet” who led African Americans to a new identity. Bring the crowd to the feet, he said: “Before James Brown said I’m Black and I’m proud, Muhammad Ali said, I’m Black and I’m pretty.”
Cosby said Ali “dared to love Black people at a time Black people had difficulty loving themselves: “And he loved us all and we loved him because we knew he loved us, whether you lived in the penthouse or the projects or came from Morehouse or no house.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a friend to Ali for 28 years, said Ali was truly the greatest.
“He moved with agility and punched with Herculean strength,” Hatch said. “He was an extraordinary fighter and a committed Civil Rights leader.” Hatch also called Ali “an effective emissary of Islam.” He said Ali showed us all the path of greatness.
Hatch said Ali was humble. He said Ali told him “God gave me this condition (Parkinson’s) to remind me always that I am human and that only He is the greatest.”
Lonnie Ali, also a Louisville native and Ali’s wife for 30 years, gave a moving tribute to her husband.
“He wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people and the world,” she said. “He may have challenged the government, but he never ran from it, or from America.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, based in Berkeley, said the way to honor Ali was to be Muhammad Ali today. He brought the crowd to their feet as he talked about political reforms. He did not mention the Presidential candidates by name, but referring to former President Bill Clinton as the “First Man” gave the audience a clue, and the got it, judging by the applause and standing ovation.
Louisville’s own John Ramsey, a close friend of Ali for many years, talked about his experiences with the champ. He said he was present with him at an Olympic gold medal boxing match and they stood with the winner hearing the chants of U-S-A. He said Ali leaned down and whispered to him that he wanted to talk to the loser. He said he arranged for Ali to talk to the loser of the match.
“In that locker room, in the lowest of the lows, he walks in and the kid recognizes him immediately, said Ramsey. “He says, in broken English, ‘Muhammad Ali’
And Muhammad starts dancing, saying, ‘Show me what you got, man.’ And he starts throwing out jabs and the kid starts ducking and smiling and Muhammad grabs him in a bear hug, and said, ‘I loved what you did out there. You looked good. You’re going to be a champion, don’t give up.’” Ramsey said it warmed his heart because Ali took the young kid from a very low to a very high in an instant. He said when they were in the car leaving, he told Muhammad Ali that he really was the Greatest. Ramsey said Ali’s response was: “Tell me something I don’t know already.”
Ramsey recalled one of the quotes Ali used to say, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room her on earth.” He then said, “Champ, your rent is paid in full.”
Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, daughter of the late Malcolm X, gave a very tearful tribute to Ali. She has been a resident of Louisville for the past six years. “Having Muhammad Ali in my life somehow sustained my dad’s breath for me just a little while longer; 51 years longer until now,” she said as she fought back tears.
Speaking on behalf of President Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor, said: “Ali was loud and proud, an unabashedly Black voice in a Jim Crow world. Muhammad Ali was America. Muhammad Ali will always be America.” Jarrett said the world embraced Ali because he was the best of America.
Sports Commentator Bryant Gumbel said Ali “gave us levels of strength and courage we didn’t even know we had.” He said, “The world needs a champion who believes in fairness and inclusion for all. It doesn’t matter which color does the hating, it’s just plain wrong.”
Comedian Billy Crystal said Ali always referred to him as his brother. “He was funny, beautiful, the most perfect athlete you ever saw, and those were his own words. He was so much more than a fighter. He made all of our lives a little bit better than they were. He taught us that life is best when you build bridges between us, not walls. He is gone, but he will never die. He was my big brother.”
Former President Bill Clinton said Ali was not imprisoned by a disease. He recalled Ali’s carrying of the Olympic Torch. “He was going to make those last steps, no matter what it took. The flame would be lit, no matter what, the fight would be won. “In the end, besides being a lot of fun to be around, I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith. And being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that brought us all here today, in honor and in love. We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world as his did.”
Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby, pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville summed it up best. Talking about Ali and him importance to the Black community, he said: “He dared to love America’s most unloved race. While he was the property of all people, let us never forget, he is the product of black people, and their struggle to be free.”