The speakers at Muhammad Ali’s more than three-hour public funeral Friday took the crowd to church, to mosque, to synagogue, and to temple.
He was laid to rest with quiet words of remembrance. He was laid to rest with excited calls for acceptance and love. He was laid to rest with thunderous applause that rivaled his lightning, with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” — meaning “God is great” — and chants of “Ali.”
He was laid to rest the way he lived. The ceremony, like Ali, was inclusive, disruptive, humor-filled, awe-inspired and faith-filled, with a splash of spectacle.
The boy who grew up on Grand Avenue, became a championship-winning boxer and then a humanitarian known around the world came home for good to Louisville, Ky. After burying the Champ during a private ceremony at Cave Hill Cemetery, Ali’s family gathered at the KFC Yum! Center to honor him in an arena full of politicians, foreign dignitaries, celebrities, media, and everyday people from around the world.
Among the first speakers were faith leaders, not just from his religion of Islam, but those of the Baptist, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon and Buddhist faiths, because as Imam Ziad Shakir said, Ali was “the people’s champ.”
According to the Rev. Kevin Cosby, president of Simmons College of Kentucky and senior pastor at St. Stephen Church, Ali helped black people look at themselves differently, with confidence and pride. After centuries of black people being told they are no one, the civil rights movement infused them with a sense of “somebodiness,” Cosby said.
“From Louisville emerged a silver-tongued poet who took the ethos of somebodiness to unheard-of heights. Before James Brown said ‘I’m black, and I’m proud.’ Muhammad Ali said ‘I’m black, and I’m pretty,’” Cosby said. “He dared to love black people at a time when black people had trouble loving themselves.”
To U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Mormon, Ali was a shining example that differences didn’t matter. Ali and Hatch bonded over their strong love for family and their devotion to their respective religions.
“Where others saw difference, Ali and I saw kinship,” he said. “Our differences fortified our friendship.”
And while Ali often espoused that he was the greatest, Hatch said on at least one occasion he admitted he wasn’t.
“He once told me that ‘God, gave me (Parkinson’s disease) to remind me that I am human and only he is the greatest,’” Hatch said.
Monsignor Henry Kriegel, priest at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Erie, Penn., said Ali was an eye-opener.
“Muhammad Ali opened our eyes to the evils of racism, to the absurdities of war,” Kriegel said. “He showed us with great patience that a debilitating illness need never diminish joy and love in our lives.”
Oren R. Lyons Jr., a faith leader in the Seneca Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, said Ali was an ally in the fight against a federal bill that would have voided the treaties between the government and the native peoples.
Louisville Rabbi Joe Rapport called Ali “the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest we can be. He was our heart and that heart beats here still.”
To Ambassador Qubilah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, he was her sustaining breath after the death of her father.
“My breathing capacity has been weakened this week,” Shabazz said in an emotional speech recalling the strong bond between their families. “For all the grief I am depleted by and others are feeling, there is none comparable to yours (Ali family) on this day and those to come.”
When Rabbi Michael Lerner walked up to the microphone, Ali’s funeral took a political tilt. Lerner’s words about politics and acceptance whipped up the crowd at the Yum Center, eliciting applause, a standing ovation and happy shouts.
“American Jews played an important role of solidarity with the African-American struggles in this country, and we today stand in solidarity with the Islamic community in this country and all around the world,” Lerner said. “We will not tolerate politicians or anyone else putting down Muslims and blaming Muslims (because of) a few people. We know what it’s like to be demeaned.”
While many people remember Ali for his boxing prowess, he was greater than that, Lerner said.
“Heavyweight champions of the world come and go, and sports champions come and go. There was something different about Muhammad Ali,” he said. “The way we honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today. …Speak truth to power.”
One of the largest eruptions of the night came when Lerner called for the next president of the United States to end corporate campaign contributions and used the pronoun “she” indicating his support for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose husband and former President Bill Clinton was a eulogist at the funeral.
President Barack Obama could not attend because of his daughter Malia‘s high school graduation, so in his place he sent senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, whose uncle Gene Dibble knew Ali. Dibble’s son Gene Dibble Jr. was one of Ali’s pallbearers.
“The man we celebrate today is not just a boxer, or a poet, or an agitator, or a man of peace. He was not just a Muslim or a black man or a Louisville kid. He wasn’t even just the greatest of all time. He was Muhammad Ali, the whole far greater than the sum of his parts,” said Jarrett, reading a tribute penned by Obama.
Ali was a “loud, a proud and an unbashedly black voice in a Jim Crow world,” she read, referencing his fight for civil rights.
“He was our most basic freedoms: religion, speech, spirit,” Jarrett said, adding that even after he was stripped of his boxing title, prevented from boxing and convicted of draft evasion during the Vietnam War, he remained in America. “I imagine he knew that only here in this country could he win it all back, so he chose to help perfect a union where a descendent of slaves can become the king of the world. …What a man, what a spirit, what a joyous, mightiful champion.”
Two hours into the funeral service, as people shouted her late husband’s name, Lonnie Ali took to the stage to thank “the millions of people” who reached out to the family with kind words of prayer and support. Keeping alive the tradition of Ali, she used his life as an example for others and to comment on growing divisiveness in the country.
A white police officer helped set Ali on the path to becoming the greatest athlete of the 20th century. After his bike was stolen, Ali vowed to beat up the person who took it, but the cop, a man named Joe Martin, told Ali he’d need to learn to fight first.
“When a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other, then miracles can happen,” Lonnie Ali said.
Ali spoke out for causes he believed in, even if it meant the end of his boxing career and possibly his fame.
“He would not be intimidated so as to abandon his principles and values,” Lonnie Ali said. “For his religion, he was prepared to sacrifice all that he had.”
When others were fleeing the United States to avoid the Vietnam War draft, Ali stayed and fought back, refusing to fight. His conviction for draft evasion was eventually overturned.
“Muhammad may have challenged his government, but he never ran from it or America,” Lonnie Ali said.
Ali was a principled man, a fighter in every sense, someone who stood against racism of all kinds, said sportscaster Bryant Gumbel in his eulogy.
“What does it say of a man, any man, that he can go from being viewed as one of his country’s most polarizing figures to arguably its most beloved and to do so without changing his nature or for a second compromising his principles,” said Gumbel, who first met Ali as a 17-year-old living in Chicago’s Hyde Park. “Fighting is what he did, but he broadened that definition by sharing his struggles with us and by making our struggles his.”
A recurring theme throughout the eulogies was how Ali stood up for people. Arguably the most emotional speech came from a young woman who never even met Ali: 19-year-old University of Louisville McConnell Scholar Natasha Mundkur.
In a moving speech, Mundkur said she learned about Ali in a textbook when she was an 8-year-old “whose reflection of herself mirrored those who could not see past the color of her skin.”
“She found strength just as this man did when he stood tall in the face of pelting rain and shouted ‘I am the disturbance in the sea of your complacency, and I will never stop shaking your waves,'” Mundkur said. “His voice echoed through hers, through mine, and she picked up the rocks that were thrown at her, and she threw them back at the voice, so powerful that it turned all the pain that she had faced in her life into strength, into tenacity.”
Ali represents those, she said, whose voices go unheard.
“He lives in you, and he lives in me, and he lives in every person he has touched in this world,” Mundkur said. “His story is far from over.”
Louisville sports personality and Ali’s friend John Ramsey echoed Mundkur’s sentiments with his own stories.
“The ability to lift us up made him a once-in-a-lifetime person,” Ramsey said. “If there was a village that needed food in a Third World country, Muhammad was on a plane, will travel, with check. If there was a conflict and he could be part of a resolution, again Muhammad will travel. As Lonnie mentioned, if there were hostages to be released, Muhammad was a man of action.”
“Because of Muhammad Ali, the world wins,” Ramsey said.
The speeches were not all calls to action, sentimental remembrances and reminders of Ali’s activist and humanitarian work. The eulogists also managed to make the crowd and the Ali family laugh.
Ramsey said he was touched to see the crowds gather along the funeral procession route around Louisville, and doing his best impression, he imagined what Ali would have thought of it all. “I think Muhammad would say ‘Louisville, Kentucky the greatest city of all times. …I’m feeling so good I think I’m gonna make a comeback and change my name back to Walnut Street.’” In 1978,Walnut Street in Louisville was renamed Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
Former President Bill Clinton poked fun at Ali’s famous bravado, saying, “I can hear Ali saying now, ‘Well, I should be eulogized by at least one president.'”
While talking about Ali’s conviction and refusal to be disempowered, Clinton challenged others to find their gift, as Ali did.
“I think he decided, something I hope every young person here will decide, I think he decided very young to write his own life story,” Clinton said. “We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world as he did.”
During the service, comedian Billy Crystal delighted people with a taste of a bit he used to do where he impersonated Ali and sports journalist Howard Cosell. After Ali saw Crystal perform it in the 1970s, they became longtime friends, with Ali calling him “little brother.”
“It’s very hard to describe how much he meant to me. You had to live in his time,” Crystal said. “(Ali) was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw, and those were his own words.”
Crystal told stories of how Ali helped him raise money for a multicultural theater group in Israel, how Ali stopped running at a country club because Jews weren’t allowed, and how Ali made him laugh at Cosell’s funeral after asking whether Crystal thought the journalist was wearing his toupee while in the closed casket.
“Didn’t he make all of our lives a little bit better than they were?” Crystal said. “He was a man who ran with the gods, walked with the crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all.”