Muhammad Ali was finally laid to rest yesterday as former heavyweight boxing champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis were among the pallbearers for the boxing legend during his burial in his home city of Louisville, in the US state of Kentucky.
Muhammad Ali died one week ago at the age of 74. Thousands of people, chanting “Ali,” lined the streets for the “most famous American Muslim ever” to say goodbye. Ali’s cherry-red casket, draped in an Islamic shroud, was placed in a hearse that took the body past sites that were important to him: his boyhood home, the gym where he first learned to box and the museum that bears his name.
As the procession wound its way through the streets, people said their final farewells to Ali with continuous chants, signs, and by wearing Ali T-shirts or, on some streets, running alongside the hearse. The motorcade procession began at about 10:35 local time (14:35 GMT), more than an hour behind schedule, and took the coffin past his childhood home, the Ali Center, the Center for African American Heritage and then down Muhammad Ali Boulevard. The procession ended at the Cave Hill Cemetery where Ali was buried in a private service, a venue he chose as his final resting place a decade ago and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Towards the end of the procession, the hearse’s windshield was almost fully covered with flowers placed by well-wishers. A public funeral was held at a sports arena in Louisville yesterday afternoon, during which former president Bill Clinton and comedian Billy Crystal eulogised Ali. Crystal’s accurate impersonation of Ali often left the champion doubled over with laughter.
Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell said Tyson was a late addition to the pallbearers after finding out a prior commitment would not prevent him from attending. Gunnell also said Tyson was very emotional after learning of Ali’s death and was not sure whether he could cope with the emotions surrounding the funeral.
Actor Will Smith, who was nominated for an Oscar for a movie portrayal of Ali, was one of the pallbearers as well.
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett read a letter from President Barack Obama, who remained in Washington to attend his daughter’s high school graduation.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut short his visit to the United States amid reports of a rift with funeral organizers.
Erdogan attended a prayer ceremony on Thursday and planned to attend the funeral, but reports said he left the U.S. Thursday night after organisers denied his requests to lay a piece of cloth on Ali’s coffin and have a Turkish religious official recite part of the Quran.
Bodyguards of the Turkish president also clashed briefly with U.S. Secret Service agents during Erdogan’s brief visit to Louisville.
Ali “The Greatest” was also remembered and mourned by 14,000 in a traditional Muslim Jenazah prayer service Thursday.
“People did not know there is Islam in America before Muhammad Ali,” said Mohamed Magid, imam of one of the largest mosques in the United States.
“They didn’t know how many Muslims are there- who are they- but Ali brought that yearly to the front. He is the most famous American Muslim ever.”
Worshippers and admirers called Ali the true face of Islam-one that promotes peace and tolerance of people of all faiths.
“I think as an advocate for justice and an advocate for truth, Ali always served as an ambassador of our faith, and it’s fitting that now even in his passing, he is serving in that capacity,” says Roula Allouch, chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“So many people from around the country and across the world will be able to see an Islamic prayer service and see Muslims in this country and around the world to pray for him.”
Civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson said the service reaffirmed that Islam is a religion of peace.
“The three great religions-Judaism, Christianity, Islam-are religions of peace, and in the name of these religions, there have been some ugly things that happened. But these religions matter so much to so many people around the world. To affirm Muhammad Ali is to affirm his religion.”
Ali was born Cassius Clay, but he cast off what he called a “slave name” when he embraced Islam in 1964.
His conversion came with a price. Many sportswriters and the conservative boxing community were slow to embrace his new name, and still called him Clay well into the late 1960’s, infuriating him.
Ali also refused induction into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War because of his faith, saying he had “no quarrel” with the Viet Cong.
This cost him his heavyweight titles in 1967 and he was banned from professional boxing until the Supreme Court overturned the ban in 1971.
Thousands of free tickets for the memorial service, taking place at a major sports centre, were snapped up within half an hour.
Comedian Billy Crystal delivered a eulogy, while sports journalist Bryant Gumbel, the daughter of civil rights activist Malcolm X, Attallah Shabazz, and Ali’s wife, Lonnie, and daughters, Maryum and Rasheda, also spoke.
Ali’s widow, Lonnie, said: “America must never forget that when a cop and an inner city kid talk to each other, miracles can happen,” referring to how Muhammad Ali talent was discovered.
She spoke of his power and influence. “Rich and powerful were drawn to him but he was drawn to the poor and the forgotten. He fell in love with masses and they fell in love with him.”
She praised his humanitarian work, saying: “Muhammad was compelled by his faith to help the poor.”