Muhammad Ali Louisville Memorial Service honours ‘The Greatest’
The more than three-hour memorial capped nearly a full day of mourning in Louisville for Ali, the boxing great who died last week at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Louisville and the rest of the world said goodbye to The Greatest on Friday, showering affection on Muhammad Ali during a fist-pumping funeral procession through the streets of his hometown, followed by a star-studded memorial service where he was eulogized as a fiercely charismatic breaker of racial barriers.
Ali himself decided years ago that his funeral would be open to ordinary fans, not just VIPs. As a result, thousands of free tickets to the memorial were made available and were snatched up within an hour.
As the long line of black limousines rolled past, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, pumped their fists, stood on cars, held up cellphones and signs, ran alongside the hearse and reached out to touch it. They tossed so many flowers onto the windshield that the driver had to push some of them aside to see the road.
“Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment. He wanted to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice…He never became bitter enough to quit or engage in violence.”
Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd that Ali “dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans” and infused them with a “sense of somebodiness.” He likened Ali to such racial trailblazers as Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
“Before James Brown said,
I'm black and I'm proud,' Muhammad Ali said, I’m black and I’m pretty,”’ Cosby said. “Blacks and pretty were an oxymoron.”Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War — a stand that cost him his boxing title.
“Ali stood up to immoral war, risked fame to speak truth to power. The way to honor him is to be like him today,” Lerner said, railing against anti-Muslim bigotry, drone attacks, the gap between rich and poor, and racist policing.
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because of his daughter Malia’s high school graduation. But White House adviser Valerie Jarrett read a letter from the president at the service in which Obama said Ali helped give him the audacity to think he could one day be president.
“Muhammad Ali was America. Brash. Defiant. Pioneering. Never tired. Always game to test the odds. He was our most basic freedoms: religion, speech, spirit,” Obama said.
Earlier in the day, an estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting, “Ali! Ali!” lined the streets as a hearse carrying the boxing great’s cherry-red casket made its way past his childhood home to Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private burial service was held for the three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
“He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn’t popular,” said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the funeral procession to pass by on an interstate highway below.
The public memorial at the KFC Yum! Center was packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Ali was saluted as a brash, self-confident and fearless man of principle, someone who went from one of the most polarizing figures in America to one of the most beloved.