Ali! Ali!’ : The Greatest makes his final journey

By Jenna Fryer and Bruce Schreiner
Associated Press

Muhammad Ali funeral cortege

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Muhammad Ali made his final journey through his hometown Friday — past the little pink house where he grew up and the museum that bears his name — as an estimated 100,000 mourners along the route pumped their fists and chanted, “Ali! Ali!” for the former heavyweight champion of the world known simply as The Greatest.

A hearse bearing Ali’s cherry-red casket, draped in an Islamic tapestry, arrived at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery in a long line of black limousines after a 19-mile drive via Muhammad Ali Boulevard that was both somber and exuberant.

“He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn’t popular,” said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the hearse to pass by on an interstate highway below.

A private graveside service was held in the afternoon, and was followed later in the day by a grand memorial service at a sports arena packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal, Sen. Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

As the interfaith service got underway at the KFC Yum! Center, the crowd of up to 15,000 burst into applause and chanted, “Ali! Ali!” when a Muslim religious leader welcomed the audience to “the home of the people’s champ.”

Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, likened Ali to such racial barrier-breakers 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,’” Cosby said. “Blacks and pretty were an oxymoron.” He said the boxing great “dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans” and infused them with a “sense of somebodiness.”

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 brash and outspoken athlete transcended sports to become a powerful source of black pride and a symbol of professional excellence recognized around the world.

The casket was loaded into a hearse outside a funeral home as a group of pallbearers that included former boxers Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith filed out, along with Ali’s nine children, his widow, two of his ex-wives and other family members.

As the limousines rolled past on the way to the cemetery, fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, 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 pull some of them off to see the road.

Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.

“To me, he was a legend to this city and an example to people. I’m just glad to be part of this history, of saying goodbye,” said Takeisha Benedict, wearing an orange “I Am Ali” T-shirt. “Opening it up and allowing us to be part of it, we’re so appreciative.”

Among the hundreds gathered outside the funeral home was Mike Stallings, of Louisville, who brought his two young sons to bid farewell to the sports legend who grew up in Louisville as Cassius Clay. “I’ve been crying all week,” he said. “As big as he was he never looked down on people. He always mingled among the crowds.”

Ali 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.

Louisville is accustomed to being in the limelight each May during the Kentucky Derby. But the send-off for the three-time heavyweight champion and global ambassador for international understanding represented one of the city’s most historic events.

“We’ve all been dreading the passing of the champ, but at the same time we knew ultimately it would come,” Mayor Greg Fischer said. “It was selfish for us to think that we could hold on to him forever. Our job now, as a city, is to send him off with the class and dignity and respect that he deserves.”

President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because of his daughter Malia’s high school graduation. Valerie Jarrett, a senior White House adviser, planned to read a letter from Obama at the service.

People gathered early in the day outside Ali’s boyhood home, which was decorated with balloons, flags, flowers and posters. Fans took photos of themselves in front of the house. Some people staked out their places nearby with lawn chairs.

The Ali Center stopped charging admission. A sightseeing company began tours of Ali’s path through the city. Businesses printed his quotes across their billboards. City buses flashed “Ali — The Greatest” in orange lights. A downtown bridge will be illuminated the rest of the week in red and gold: red for his boxing gloves, gold for his Olympic medal.

“Everybody feels a sense of loss with Ali’s passing,” said Mustafa Abdush-Shakur, who traveled from Connecticut. “But there’s no need to be sad for him. We’re all going to make that trip.”




Ali’s stance on Vietnam War emboldened MLK to oppose conflict

By George E. Curry Editor-in-Chief



Ali and King

Muhammad Ali boxing

Ali boxing on jump


WASHINGTON – Muhammad Ali’s decision to risk going to jail by opposing the Vietnam War provided Dr. Martin Luther King with the strength to come out against the war publicly for the first time, according to the board chairman of King’s old organization.

Bernard Lafayette, a longtime Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) field organizer and current board chairman, said in an interview with “He was the reason Martin Luther King had the courage to come out and take a stand against the war, even though Martin Luther King’s own board was not in favor of it.”

He added, “I don’t remember any exact quotes, but Muhammad Ali is the one that pushed Martin Luther King to take a stand.”

Ali, who was a global icon in and out of the boxing ring, died June 3 in a hospital in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he had been admitted with respiratory problems. He was 74 years old. A private funeral service will be held Thursday in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. followed by a public memorial on Friday.

On April 28, 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, citing religious reasons. He said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” Ali, who had converted to Islam three years earlier and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. to Muhammad Ali, was immediately stripped of his heavyweight championship title.

He was convicted of draft evasion on June 20, 1967, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He remained free while his case worked its way through the appeals process.  On June 28, 1971, a unanimous Supreme Court overturned his conviction, granting him conscious objector status.

Ali’s standoff with the federal government captured the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the preeminent civil rights leader of that period.

Like Ali, he took a stand against the Vietnam War, a position that was opposed by many of his fellow civil rights warriors, including NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins and National Urban League President Whitney Young, Jr. On April 30, 1967 – just two days after Ali refused to take a step forward to be inducted into the Army – King gave a major address against the war at Riverside Church in New York City.

“I speak out against this war, not in anger, but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and, above all, with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world,” King said. “I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. And there can be no great disappointment where there is not great love. I am disappointed with our failure to deal positively and forthrightly with the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. We are presently moving down a dead-end road that can lead to national disaster. America has strayed to the far country of racism and militarism.”

While then-president Lyndon B. Johnson objected to King’s opposition to the war, the nation’s first African American president praised Ali for his unpopular stand. In a statement, President and Mrs. Obama said, “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”

They explained, “He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.”

The former heavyweight champion occupied a special place in Black America. Like Joe Lewis had instilled mass pride in an earlier generation, he did the same for the succeeding generation.

The Louisville, Ky. native won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and turned pro later that year. On Feb. 25, 1964, Ali scored an upset knockout over Sonny Liston in the sixth round, becoming heavyweight champion. In addition to predicting the round his opponent would fall, Ali provided the most colorful quotes of any boxer before or afterward.

“The Louisville Lip,” as he was sometimes known, was famous for saying, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”

In case you didn’t get the point, he said, “I done something new for this fight. I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightening. I thrown thunder in jail. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m, so mean I make medicine sick.”

Not all of his lines were original, but that did not seem to matter. For example, he often said, “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and got into bed before the room was dark.” A variation of that quote is widely attributed to Negro League baseball great Josh Gibson describing Cool Papa Bell. But Ali could get away with claiming it.

After being banned from boxing, Ali returned to the ring against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1970. Ali knocked him out in the third round.

Many of Ali’s fights had catchy titles, most of them supplied by him. His 1971 fight against Joe Frazier was billed as the “Fight of the Century.” He defeated George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. After splitting two bouts with Joe Frazier, Ali defeated him in 14 rounds in the “Thrilla in Manila.”

Ali retired in 1981 with a 56-5 record and the only person to hold the heavyweight championship three times. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson disease.

“Later, as his physical powers ebbed, he became an even more powerful force for peace and reconciliation around the world,” Obama said of Ali. “We saw a man who said he was so mean he’d make medicine sick reveal a soft spot, visiting children with illness and disability around the world, telling them they, too, could become the greatest. We watched a hero light a torch, and fight his greatest fight of all on the world stage once again; a battle against the disease that ravaged his body, but couldn’t take the spark from his eyes.”

Jesse L. Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said of Ali, “He sacrificed the heart of his career and money and glory for his religious beliefs about a war he thought unnecessary and unjust…He was a champion in the ring, but, more than that, a hero beyond the ring. When champions win, people carry them off the field on their shoulders. When heroes win, people ride on their shoulders. We rode on Muhammad Ali’s shoulders.”

Another civil rights leader, Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said: “I believe Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Whether he was the greatest boxer in history may be debated for generations. But none has had a greater impact on American culture and social justice.”

On Twitter, Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network, said Ali “was and always will be the greatest.” Sharpton said, “We should all strive to embody the virtues he possessed.”

Even Ali’s former opponents had nothing but praise for him. “It’s like a part of me just passed w/him,” George Foreman Tweeted. “It’s hard for me to think about being n a world without Muhammad Ali being alive.”