Close to a hundred thousand people were present at legendary boxer Muhammad Ali’s funeral in Louisville on Friday night.
People chanting, “Ali! Ali!” lined the streets as the hearse carrying his cherry-red casket 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.
As fans said their goodbyes to The Greatest, they showered affection for their hero as the funeral procession through the streets of his hometown.
A star-studded memorial service followed the funeral where he was saluted as a fearless breaker of racial barriers.
“He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn’t popular,” said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the funeral procession to pass by on an interstate highway below.
Later in the day, a grand memorial service was held at a sports arena packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, 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.”
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 honor him is to be like him today,” Lerner said, railing against such things as 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 brash and outspoken athlete transcended sports to become a powerful source of black pride and a symbol of professional excellence recognized around the world.
(With inputs from agencies)