Thousands of people lined the streets of Louisville, Ky. on June 10 to say thank you to the “Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali, who died a week earlier at age 74.
The three-time heavyweight champion left behind plans for events to memorialize his death: an Islamic funeral, a public procession for the people, and a memorial service in an arena.
His family, the city of Louisville, and the world listened.
Crowds gathered outside of A.D. Porter and Sons Funeral Home, early Friday morning to cheer on the champ, shouting “Ali, Ali, Ali!”
Linda Godfrey of Lexington, Ky., a retired nurse, stood for hours to catch a glimpse of Ali’s funeral motorcade, and reflected on the inspiration she received when Ali stood up for what he believed in.
“We thought he was all mouth at first, but when he gave those belts back to stand against the war, it was the defining moment in this nation’s history,” says Godfrey. Ali openly opposed the Vietnam War and in 1967 refused to be drafted; he was later convicted by a jury, and was stripped of his heavyweight title belt.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights,” Ali famously asked.
Ali’s funeral procession was 19 miles in length, and crowds gathered with signs and flowers at every intersection. Beginning on Bardstown Road, a 25-car motorcade traveled along Interstates 65 and 64, exiting at Ninth Street in downtown Louisville. It then cruised west on Muhammad Ali Boulevard to 34th Street in West End, making a stop at Ali’s childhood home on Grand Avenue before proceeding east on Broadway to Cave Hill National Cemetery.
Crowds and a bed of rose petals lay at the gates to greet Ali and his family.
Afterwards, in keeping with Ali’s wishes, people from around the world attended an interfaith memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center. Former University of Louisville basketball player Terrence Williams, a 2009 first-round draft pick, explained he literally carries Ali’s inspiration with him daily.
“I came to U of L because of Ali,” Williams, a Seattle native, said. “As an athlete no one inspired me more than him, save for Jackie Robinson.”
While in college, Williams met Ali several times, and later tattooed Ali’s likeness on his leg as a daily reminder.
“This would never be done for another person, no matter where you are in the world you have to come here,” Williams said.
Approximately 18,000 people attended the memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center, and multiple faiths and religions were present on the dais. The Rev. Kevin W. Cosby, of Louisville’s St. Stephens Baptist Church; Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R); and Rabbi Michael Lerner, among others, spoke during the memorial service.
“Ali was the greatest, because he pointed us all to the greatest: God,” Hatch said, reflecting on the campaign trail support he received from Ali.
Chief Sidney Hill and Chief Oren Lyons represented the Native American community, who in 1978 marched in Washington with Ali to defend their treaties with the U.S. Government. Betty Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X, Ali’s wife Lonnie, and their daughters eulogized Ali.
“America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other, miracles can happen,” Lonnie Ali said, receiving a standing ovation. Ali was trained by Joe S. Martin, who served as a Louisville police officer for more than 35 years.
Billy Crystal, John Ramsey, Bryant Gumbel, and President Bill Clinton closed out the distinguished list of eulogists. Clinton said he respected Ali because he decided to never be disempowered.
“The second part of his life was more important than the first because he was imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was imprisoned,” Clinton said, referencing Ali’s thirty-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world, as he did,” Clinton said.