World bids farewell to Muhammad Ali 'The Greatest'
Published 10/06/2016 | 16:01
Louisville and the rest of the world said goodbye to The Greatest on Friday, showering affection on Muhammad Ali during a funeral procession through the streets of his home town, followed by a star-studded memorial service where he was saluted as a brash and outspoken breaker of racial barriers.
An estimated 100,000 people holding signs and chanting, "Ali! Ali!" lined the streets as a hearse carrying his cherry-red coffin made its way past his childhood home to Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery, where a private graveside service was held for the three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
The memorial service was held at a sports arena packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Senator Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, Arnold Schwarzenegger, football star David Beckham and actress Whoopi Goldberg.
Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd of up to 15,000 people at the KFC Yum! Centre that the boxing great "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,'" Mr 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 honour him is to be like him today," the rabbi said, railing against anti-Muslim bigotry, drone attacks, the gap between rich and poor, and racist policing.
Ali, the most magnetic and controversial athlete of the 20th century, died last Friday at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.
The casket, draped with an Islamic tapestry, was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home. The pallbearers included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith, who played Ali in the movies. Ali's nine children, his widow, two of his ex-wives and other family members accompanied the body to the cemetery.
The 19-mile drive took Ali's body past the little pink house where he grew up and the museum that bears his name. At one point, the procession went along Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
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.
Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.
"A li chose the cemetery as his final resting place a decade ago. Its 130,000 graves represent a who's who of Kentucky, including Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders. Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said he will have a simple headstone, inscribed only "Ali," in keeping with Islamic tradition.
A traditional Muslim funeral service was held Thursday, with an estimated 6,000 admirers arriving from all over the world.
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 Friday's memorial were made available and were snatched up within an hour.
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," Mr Obama said.
Ali's widow, Lonnie, in her first public remarks since his death, took the stage in an oversized hat that shielded her eyes.
"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," she said. "He never became bitter enough to quit or engage in violence."