In the early 1960s, when a young Cassius Clay was following his conscience into becoming Muhammad Ali, it is said one of the things that disillusioned him about the Baptist faith into which he had been born was how its churches were then segregated by race.
If so, Ali would have relished the sight inside the South Wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center on Thursday. For the Islamic Jenazah Prayer Service for the late boxing champion, who died last Friday at age 74, thousands of people turned out.
“We welcome the Muslims,” Imam Zaid Shakir said at the start of the service. “We welcome the members of other faith communities. We welcome the law enforcement community. We welcome our sisters, our elders, our youngsters. All were beloved to Muhammad Ali.”
It is no exaggeration to say that in the faces there to pray for Ali, one could literally see the world.
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There were black faces, brown faces, white faces — and pretty much every shade of face in between.
There were women wearing the hijab — and women in Kentucky Wildcats T-shirts.
There were people arriving in a van from the Shiloh Baptist Church — and people wearing “Allah First” T-shirts.
There were teenage boys decked out in “Muhammad Ali heavyweight champion” shirts, middle-aged men in dishdashas and elegant-looking, gray-haired gentlemen in three-piece suits with bow ties.
Over my 52 years, I don’t recall ever having been in a more diverse crowd. In what seems the ultimate tribute to Ali, a gathering of such disparate peoples of varied beliefs, the vibe was friendly and upbeat.
There were famous people.
“You see all these people here from all walks of life,” said the famous boxing promoter Don King, still ebullient at age 84. “Every race, color, creed and religion brought together to pay homage to a great, great man.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the 1960s Civil Rights leader and 1980s Democratic politician, said Ali — with his stand against the Vietnam War and role in generating pride among other blacks — helped change Kentucky, the South and the nation.
“It is said (Ali) was controversial,” Jackson said. “He was not. He was maladjusted. The controversy was there was better care for horses than the black children. … The controversy was black athletes in Louisville and Kentucky couldn’t play for the University of Kentucky in basketball or at (the University of) Louisville. (Ali) helped to change those unjust and crooked laws.”
There were everyday people who traveled from out of state to pray for Ali.
Amir Ansari, 52, was among five who had driven all night from Chicago. As a little boy growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, in the 1970s, Ansari found inspiration from watching Ali’s boxing matches on TV.
“He was a Muslim, too,” Ansari explained of his fandom of Ali. “That was a big thing to us. He was a big hero to all the world.”
Imam Rafiq Mahdi, 61, came from Knoxville. Mahdi had once met Ali in New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport.
Even in death, Mahdi thought Ali had done another service to Islam by opening up his prayer service Thursday to those of other faiths.
“They probably saw a side of Islam many have not seen before, a more peaceful expression of our faith,” he said.
There were Louisvillians saying goodbye to someone they had known.
Mary Luckett Neblett used to see a young Ali running around her neighborhood, shadow boxing.
“You look at all the different kinds of people here today, he would have loved this,” she said.
It was 1955 when Paul Mullins first laid eyes on the man who arguably would go on to become the most famous citizen in the world. Mullins was on the floor at a friend’s house drawing pictures when the guy later to be named Ali and his brother came in on their bikes.
Mullins was 5. The future heavyweight champion of the world was 13.
Now 66, Mullins believes Ali is somewhere even now relishing the thousands who have descended on Louisville this week to say goodbye.
“Ali was a people person, loved to entertain people,” Mullins said. “You see this here today, even in his death, he’s still the center of attention.”