A Stirring Farewell to Muhammad Ali,
Just as He Scripted It
By JIM DWYER
The Muhammad Ali funeral procession wound through the streets of Louisville, Ky., on Friday.
Muhammad Ali spent the better part of a decade planning his funeral, his friends and family said, and by late Friday afternoon it was evident what had taken him so long. In a spectacle that fanned across miles of his hometown, in memories that stretched over some of 20th-century America’s most turbulent years, and in prayers from the palette of faiths that he honored as paths to truth, he was laid to rest, one week after his death at age 74.
Ali was eulogized in a grand sports arena by, among others, a priest and an imam, a rabbi and a monk, a former United States president and a famous comedian. Protégées and daughters and his wife remembered him. As they spoke, all stood beneath the flags of the United States and the Olympic Games, symbols of a man who saw himself as a citizen of America and of the world.
Earlier in the day, his coffin traveled through nearly 20 miles of Louisville, cheered and saluted by tens of thousands of people who tossed flowers onto the hearse and chanted his name. On Thursday, a traditional Muslim ceremony was held here as a prelude to Friday’s embrace.
SPORTS By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Remembering a Legend
Remembering a Legend Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel delivered eulogies for Muhammad Ali at a 15,000-seat sports arena in his hometown, Louisville today.
Watch in Times Video »
It was all part of a leave-taking that Ali had seen as a chance to lead once more by including Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Native Americans as speakers in an emphatic, if not explicitly spoken, renunciation of sectarianism and embrace of ecumenism.
“Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment,” Ali’s widow, Lonnie, said. He was 12 years old when his bicycle was stolen, she noted, and a police officer encouraged him to learn boxing. Teachers believed in him. Friends backed his career.
Named the athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, Ali never settled for sportsman as his sole identity. Among the first speakers at the memorial was the Rev. Kevin Cosby of St. Stephen Church in Louisville, who said Ali had taken his place in history by rejecting the narrative of a country that had, from its earliest days, refused to recognize African-Americans as fully human and full citizens. That mattered because of the times he lived in, Dr. Cosby said, the context that helped define him just as the American Revolution had for George Washington and the Great Depression for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
PhotoAli’s widow, Lonnie, speaking at the service. “Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted to use his life and his death as a teaching moment,” she said. CreditLucas Jackson/Reuters “He dared to love black people at a time when black people had a problem loving themselves,” Dr. Cosby said. “He dared to affirm the beauty of blackness, he dared to affirm the power and the capacity of African-Americans. He dared to love America’s most unloved race.”
President Obama, in Washington for his daughter’s high school graduation, sent a letter that said Ali’s example had inspired him to think how far he might one day go himself.
“Ali was a radical, even in the most radical of times,” Mr. Obama wrote, in a letter read by his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. “A loud, and proud, and unabashedly black voice in a Jim Crow world. His jabs knocked some sense into us, pushing us to expand our imagination.”
Billy Crystal, a young and struggling comedian when he became friends with Ali, said the boxer had invited him to go for a training run one morning at a country club. Mr. Crystal said he explained that the club excluded Jews. Ali, he said, was incensed to learn this, saying, “I’m a black Muslim, and they let me run.”
Ali never ran at that club again, Mr. Crystal said. He remembered, as well, that the silver-tongued Ali had lost his speech to illness in recent years, but that he continued to be a powerful force on humanitarian missions.
“Ultimately, he became a silent messenger for peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls,” Mr. Crystal said.
The comedian Billy Crystal, speaking at Ali’s memorial service, said, “Ultimately, he became a silent messenger for peace.” CreditAaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images Drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, Ali said his faith could not countenance a combat role, and Ms. Ali noted that he refused to leave the country even though his stance cost him his boxing title and put him in jeopardy of prison. Mr. Crystal said Ali had set an example.
“There were millions of young men my age, eligible for the draft for a war we didn’t believe in,” Mr. Crystal said. “It was Ali who stood up for us by standing up for himself.”
Viewed through the lens of history, Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War is now widely seen as principled; at the time, he was denounced. Dr. Cosby noted that at the Kentucky Derby, gamblers cannot bet on a horse once it has reached the winner’s circle.
Along the almost 20-mile route to Cave Hill Cemetery, the funeral procession passed a mural depicting Ali’s 1965 victory over Sonny Liston.
“There were a lot of people who would bet on Muhammad Ali when he was in the winner’s circle,” Dr. Crosby said. “But the masses bet on him while he was still in the mud.”
Close to 20,000 people were in the KFC Yum Center arena for the memorial, which lasted more than three hours, with 13 speakers in addition to members of the clergy who prayed and chanted.
If the spectacle in the arena was global, the scenes on the roughly 19-mile procession were strictly local, pulsing with pride for a native son. Ali’s ties to the compact, quirky city of his youth never frayed. All business halted as workers streamed to the sidewalk to stand vigil in gently chaotic decorum.
MUHAMMAD ALI By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Fans React as Ali Is Mourned
Fans React as Ali Is MournedLifelong fans of the boxing legend Muhammad Ali gathered to pay respects outside his childhood home in Louisville, Ky., as his funeral went on in the same city.
“It’s almost like we’re extended cousins,” said Andrea Meriwether, 31, a native of Louisville, who was taught pool by Ali’s younger brother, Rahman Ali. “I can’t think of anyone from here who hasn’t met him or had some connection.”
Along Broadway in the heart of downtown, those extended cousins, and other branches of the human family, stood eight and 10 deep on both sides of the street for blocks. With no pens to corral them on the sidewalk, the crowds seeped onto the roadway.
“Everyone has a story,” said Mark Collins, 54, who recalled working in a bank when Ali, then in his magic-trick phase, performed an illusion of levitation.
MUHAMMAD ALI By BEN LAFFIN, DAVE HORN and MEGAN SPECIA 1:30
Fans Remember Ali’s Complicated Legacy
Fans, peers and family members of Muhammad Ali's reacted to his death and reflected on his contributions to sports and society over the past week.
Watch in Times Video »An especially jammed point was the corner where Broadway meets South Fourth Street, a central shopping and dining street. Now featuring chiseled atriums, it was a street where the young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, would not have been allowed into the cafeterias of the department stores.
Among those near that spot on Friday was Carolyn Miller-Cooper, the executive director of the city’s Human Relations Commission. “In Louisville, it was always a polite racism,” Ms. Miller-Cooper said. “You couldn’t go in and try on clothes. Children had to trace their foot on a sheet of paper for parents to bring to the store and try to buy the right-sized shoes.”
For many in the crowd, Ali’s stature as a boxer was something they had heard about, a piece of history they had not lived; the appreciation of the man was for the place he claimed in the world.
“I wasn’t around for those titles,” said Rodrecruz Hines, 32, an autoworker who held a single red rose as he waited. “To me, he had this charismatic character, and he stood up for our rights, for the rights of young black men.”
As the hearse approached, chants of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” rose. People swarmed forward to toss flowers onto the hearse. Riding with the windows down, people in the limousines, including members of the Ali family, the actor Will Smith, and the mayor, Greg Fischer, slapped hands with the spectators as they passed.
Ali returned often to Louisville, and Ms. Miller-Cooper, who serves on the board of the city’s Muhammad Ali Center, saw him at a gala for the center last fall, with Ms. Ali tending to him. Ms. Miller-Cooper’s admiration for both of them grew as he continued a public life, even if physically diminished.
“He was pretty frail, but he was still out there, shining a light on Parkinson’s,” she said. “I think that was what showed he was the greatest — that he continued to live, not hide.”
- Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century
- Muhammad Ali: Worshiped. Misunderstood. Exploited
- The Greatest? Here’s Why
- Two Champions: Muhammad Ali and Gordon Parks
- The World Remembers Muhammad Ali
- In Muhammad Ali, an Example of a Truer Kind of Bravery in Sports
- In Their Own Words: Eulogies for Muhammad Ali
- MUHAMMAD ALI, 1942-2016 Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th Century
- Muhammad Ali Fans Pay Homage to Their Local Hero
- Mike Tyson and Will Smith Among Pallbearers at Muhammad Ali’s Funeral
- Muhammad Ali Was Her First, and Greatest, Love