Louisville, that’s never going to happen again. Not what I saw on the streets of my hometown Friday. Not the people lining them for 20 miles. Not children running alongside a hearse, throwing jabs into the air. Not grown men trotting to kiss the roof. Not flowers covering the windshield.
Not chants ringing out in celebration. Not cars screeching to a halt on the interstate, watching a processional pass on the other side. Not the hands, thousands of them, touching the cars, reaching into the windows. Not rose petals at the cemetery entrance.
Only once are we appointed to see such a thing. And even if we live long enough, you’re only given so many people like Muhammad Ali. And even if a man is great enough, even if he can lay claim to being the Greatest, none is likely to touch as many people, personally, as this one.
“Only once in a thousand years or so do we get to hear a Mozart or see a Picasso or read a Shakespeare,” Billy Crystal said, talking about his friend Ali in a Memorial Service in front of 20,000 people at the KFC Yum! Center.
Remember all this, Louisville. Once in a thousand years. We have seen nothing like this. We will see nothing like this again.
It was part parade, part procession, funeral and festival. In Louisville, we have a parade down Broadway every year at Kentucky Derby time, The Pegasus Parade. Pegasus is a mythological winged stallion who flew among the gods delivering lightning and thunder from the heavens.
It’s here on Broadway in Louisville that my thoughts turned the day Ali died. I remembered Wade Houston talking about how Ali always loved to come back to the city after his fights, and how he’d drive his big recreational vehicle west down Broadway so fast that police would pull him over, until they looked and saw him inside, and just smiled and said, “Slow down, champ.”
On Sunday, Ali came home one, last time. And on Friday, headed up Broadway the other direction, to the stately gates and rose-strewn streets near Cave Hill Cemetery, the champ finally slowed down.
Ali had a recurring dream that his daughter Hana Ali wrote about.
“When he was younger he said, ‘I used to dream that I was running down Broadway in downtown, Louisville, Kentucky, and all of the people were gathered in the street waving at me and clapping and cheering my name, then all of a sudden I just took off flying,’” she said.
Maybe he was describing this day, even then.
Crystal, whose eulogy for Ali was among several that reached pitch-perfect proportions, invoked the thunder Pegasus commanded in remembering his old friend.
“I have labored to come up with a way to describe the legend,” he said. “He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air. A fantastic combination of power and beauty. We’ve seen still photographs of lightning bolts from the moment of impact — magnificent in its elegance, it lights up everything around, so you can see everything clearly. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night. In the heart of its most threatening gathering storm his power toppled the mightiest of foes, and his intense light shined on America, and we were able to see clearly, injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all.”
On a bright, warm, sunny day in Louisville, Ali’s casket turned off the expressway and onto Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and no longer did it pass distant crowds, but it was enveloped, as he always was, by friends, embraced by close-in people, Ali’s people. Michael Hollis was driving a limousine with one of Ali’s daughters and granddaughters sitting in the back. He’s 62 years old. He graduated from Central High School, just like Ali.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” he said. “And I’ve lived here all my life.”
Inside the arena, besides Crystal, the most moving voices came from Louisville.
Lonnie Ali, his wife of 30 years and a Louisville native, in a moving tribute to her husband, said that, “He wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people and the world.”
Then she taught. She commended Joe Martin, the white police officer who taught Ali to box after his bike was stolen, adding, “America must never forget, when a cop and an inner-city kid talk to each other, miracles can happen.”
She said that her husband “may have challenged his government, but he never ran from it, or from America.”
Kevin Cosby, pastor of Louisville’s St. Stephen Baptist Church, gave a rousing recollection of Ali’s importance to the black community.
“He dared to love America’s most unloved race,” Cosby said, and added, “While he is the property of all people, let us never forget, he is the product of black people, and their struggle to be free.”
John Ramsey, a close friend of Ali, gave Crystal a run for his money when it came to mimicking Ali’s mannerisms. John, man, you reached a mountaintop — and you did it by sharing glimpses of Ali’s humanity.
Ramsey told of being present at an Olympic gold medal boxing match with Ali, and after the champ had stood with the victor, hearing chants of U-S-A, Ali leaned down and whispered to Ramsey, “Where’s the loser?”
“In that locker room, in the lowest of the lows, he walks in and the kid recognizes him immediately,” Ramsey said. “He says, in broken English, ‘Muhammad Ali!’ And Muhammad starts dancing, saying, ‘Show me what you got, man.’ And he starts throwing out jabs and the kid starts ducking and smiling, and Muhammad grabs him in a bear hug, and said, ‘I loved what you did out there. You looked good. You’re moving good. You’re going to be a champion, don’t give up.’ And I remember, it warmed my heart how he took this kid from here (low) to here (high) in an instant. I got in the car and I told him, ‘Muhammad I try to be a nice guy but I was caught up in the moment and I didn’t give that losing fighter a second thought. I said, ‘Muhammad, you’re the greatest.’ Muhammad said, ‘Tell me something I don’t already know.’”
Ramsey called him “the finest example of a human being I have ever seen.” And recalling Ali’s quote that, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” he responded, “Champ, your rent is paid in full.”
There was Attallah Shabazz, daughter of slain Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, and a resident of Louisville for the past six years. There were many inspiring, humorous, insightful speakers, on Friday, but few conveyed the sense of loss better than Shabazz.
“Having Muhammad Ali in my life somehow sustained my dad’s breath for me just a little while longer — 51 years longer until now,” she said, tearfully.
There were other memorable moments. Barack Obama, in remarks relayed by Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, said that the world embraced Ali because he was the best of America, and in fact said, “Muhammad Ali was America. Muhammad Ali will always be America.”
Former president Bill Clinton said, “We should honor him by letting our gifts go among the world as his did.”
Berkeley-based rabbi Michael Lerner, said, “The way to honor Muhammad Ali is to be Muhammad Ali today,” then launched into a rousing political list of reforms as a start.
But on this day, I couldn’t help but be struck by this city, full of dignitaries, royalty, rulers and common people, from around the world. By a procession heading down streets where we often report crimes and shootings. By frank discussions of race and poverty and God.
This is an important moment for Louisville, not just because the world was watching, but because it is an opportunity, a chance to spark momentum for improvement in those areas that erupted for a fallen champion. To honor Ali, that route should get more than a one-day close-up or helicopter flyovers. It should be more than just picking up trash along the roadside for the cameras.
We have made great strides in diversity, but we need strides in education, in housing, in investment in people. I’m not sure the lives of children in streets all around that route today are appreciably better than they were in the days Ali was growing up, despite our societal advances. The West End of Louisville needs more than drive-by solutions. If we want to honor Ali, it needs to be a place where, like him, children can go outside at night, safely, and look at the stars, and dream of greatness. And it needs to be a place where they are given the tools to achieve that greatness. Right now, a great many kids in those neighborhoods are getting neither. If this day is to have meaning beyond just a mile-marker on the city’s history, it must take place there, in those streets.
Chances to gain positive momentum in such places don’t come along every day. And in fact, in Louisville, on the day Muhammad Ali was laid to rest, a day like this, count on it, will never come again.