Muhammad Ali funeral: Thousands honor ‘The Greatest’ in Louisville
To be part of the tribute to Muhammad Ali here, Anson Lane boarded a jet in England and flew eight hours to Chicago. Then he drove a rental car six hours.
Lane stood in early-June Kentucky heat for two hours Friday in order to watch a hearse carrying Ali’s body go by en route to the cemetery. He had an easy answer to the obvious question: why?
“Because he’s the greatest,” he said. “England loves him. He’d stop a town if he drove in.”
Lane, 73 and a retired software engineer, spoke of Ali in the present tense. He said he came to “wish him a bon voyage.”
Later in the day, Lane was part of a crowd that nearly filled the Yum Center for a memorial service for Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion and a once-in-a-lifetime personality that speakers likened to Mozart and Shakespeare.
The service, which came within one minute of lasting four hours, spoke to why someone like Lane might traverse an ocean in order to pay respects. About 2,000 media outlets from as far away as Australia and Turkey requested credentials.
Dr. Kevin Cosby, a minister in Louisville, spoke of how Ali, who burst on the scene brash and proud, inspired greater self-esteem in blacks. Ali, Cosby said, gave people of his race “a sense of somebody-ness” after centuries of “nobody-ness.”
Cosby reminded — or informed — the audience of a telling line in the third verse of The Star Spangled Banner: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight nor the gloom of the grave,” Francis Scott Key wrote.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Barack Obama, represented the president and first lady at the service. She spoke of Ali’s post-boxing life as a “man of peace.”
Ali, who won the heavyweight championship as a brash 22-year-old in 1964, was reviled when he announced the next day that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. Antagonism heightened when he refused to be drafted into military service. Later in life, he became an advocate for peace and understanding.
“Like America, he was very much a work in progress,” Jarrett said. Ali, she added, “inspired Obama to be anything, even president of the United States.”
With Ali having been involved in the planning, the service had a welcoming tone. Speakers included two rabbis, two Imams, a Democrat (Bill Clinton), a Republican (Orrin Hatch), Native Americans, Buddhists, a Christian minister, his widow, two of Ali’s daughters and one of Malcolm X’s daughters.
Almost 3 1/2 hours into the service, Billy Crystal took the stage. “We’re at the halfway point,” the bearded comedian and actor joked. “I was clean shaven when this started.”
Former President Bill Clinton was the final speaker. He saluted Ali’s widow, Lonnie, who sat in the front row with family in the darkened Yum Center.
“Thank you for making the second half of his life greater than the first,” Clinton said.
Calling Ali “a universal solider for our common humanity,” Clinton suggested that others should follow the former champion’s example.
Ali “perfected the gifts we all have,” Clinton said. “We should honor him by letting our gifts go to the world as he did.”
At times the service had an undercurrent sure to divide people, which fit a polarizing figure like Ali.
Rabbi Michael Lerner saluted Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the army during the Vietnam War. Lerner said this one way Ali elevated himself beyond mere sports hero and used his celebrity “to stand up against an immoral war.”
Without mentioning the presumptive Republican presidential nominee by name, more than one speaker mentioned one of Donald Trump’s signature utterances.
Crystal called Ali in later life a “messenger for peace,” adding, “life is better when you build bridges between people, not walls.”
During his raucous turn on stage, Lerner referenced Ali’s ecumenical spirit. “We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims or blaming Muslims,” the Rabbi said.
Her husband “saw nobility in all races,” Lonnie Ali said. That spirit inside the Yum Center did not spread throughout the area around the downtown arena.
In one small area across Main Street, about 10 protesters from the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church chanted, sang and lifted signs that carried hateful messages. It was a familiar scene for the church, which has become synonymous with directing invective at mourners.
“You’re not America!” Osman Sadiq shouted at the protesters as he walked by. “You’re not America! Thank God you’re not America!”
Sadiq, 36, works in finance in Philadelphia. He came to Louisville to attend the service, but could not get a ticket. He said he was especially incensed that the church chose to stage a protest at Ali’s memorial service.
The tribute to Ali in the Yum Center is what brought people to Louisville. That’s what brought Lane from Portsmouth, England.
“The people are lovely,” Lane said. “The weather is lovely. I think we’re doing him proud. And I hope he knows that.”