Muhammad Ali's memorial was just as Muhammad Ali would've wanted

Muhammad Ali's memorial was just as Muhammad Ali would've wanted

Published Jun. 10, 2016 11:31 p.m. ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There are safe versions of tributes to Muhammad Ali.

Such tributes and memorials focus on his near peerless ring legacy that includes an Olympic gold medal and three separate title reigns as boxing's heavyweight champion.

Those tributes emphasize his boxing prowess which, 35 years after he stopped fighting, is universally lauded. They are uncontroversial and have been found everywhere -- in print, over the radio waves and on screen -- over the past week, since Ali died June 3 at the age of 74. 

They are also nothing like the memorial Ali planned for himself over the years. On Friday, we got to see the fruits and plans of The Book, come to life and played out in front of tens of thousands of Ali supporters in his Kentucky hometown, and many more in the viewing world.


We got to see and hear what one of the most well-known and influential figures of the past two centuries himself considered his true legacy, and how he wants to be remembered. It should be no surprise that there was nothing modest, safe, or quiet about Muhammad Ali's vision for how the world should look back on him and move forward without him.

Ali's own self-planned and beautiful memorial was impressively ambitious in scope. The over-three-hour service with over a dozen speakers and presenters had a clear theme — Ali's legacy not in sport, but in the larger world, regarding social issues of equality and justice.

Ali's widow Lonnie said it was her husband's wish to use the occasion of his death the same way he tried to utilize his life as a "teaching moment." She highlighted that throughout his legendary life "the rich and powerful were drawn to him, but he was drawn to the poor."

"Even in death," she said proudly of her husband, "he has something to say."

Ali said it through his hand-selected speakers who, one-by-one, clergy of many different faiths, heads of state, family members, entertainers and friends, focused on Ali's radical humanitarian legacy and themselves argued for social change just as vociferously and even, at times, antagonistically as he did throughout his life on issues such as war protest, racial integration, civil rights, poverty and freedom of religion.

Time and again, the many speakers at Ali's public memorial used heart-warming stories to make larger points. Lonnie told the familiar story of white Louisville police officer Joe Martin coming upon a young Cassius Clay in the 1950's after the boy's bike had been stolen, and introducing him to boxing so he could learn to defend himself, and implicitly contrasted it to the all-too-common adversarial role white police officers sometimes play with young black people in inner cities.

"This reminds us that when a police officer and an inner-city kid talk, miracles happen," she said, to thunderous applause.

Comedian and actor Billy Crystal, longtime friend of Ali, used the unlikely story of how he and the heavyweight met and became close friends to say that "life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls," a line likely aimed at criticizing positions of politicians like presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Rabbi Michael Lerner loudly advocated during his time for all sorts of specific policy proposals across the world to be implemented, including the creation of a new, independent Palestinian state, U.S. campaign-finance reform and drug possession law and enforcement reform. Ali is reported to have instructed all of his chosen memorial speakers to speak from their hearts.

Lerner and others clearly felt that mandate and ran with it, seeming to not just speak of their friend, but for him, on issues he at least wanted to see discussed and debated. The rabbi, as we all have, marveled at Ali's athletic greatness, but maintained that it wasn't boxing that gave Ali his true importance in the world.

"Heavyweight champions of the world come and go and sports heroes come and go. There was something about Muhammad Ali that was different. At the key moment when he had that recognition, he used it to stand up to an immoral war and say, 'No, I won't go,'" Lerner said, speaking of Ali's decision to not submit himself to the military draft during the Vietnam War while he was heavyweight champion.

Ali faced prison time for his refusal to take part in that largely disastrous war. Ultimately, after years of legal battles, Ali had his position upheld by the nation's Supreme Court, but in the meantime, he willingly gave up the prime years of his career, millions of dollars, and his reputation.

That willingness to put principle above personal profit, and to put his life and livelihood on the line, is what Muhammad Ali was really all about, according to Lerner.

"It's for that reason that tens of millions of Americans who don't particularly care about boxing do care about Muhammad Ali," Lerner said, "because he was the person who was willing to risk a great honor that he got and the great fame that he got to stand up for the beliefs that he had, to speak truth to power when the rest of the people around him said, 'No, no, you're going to lose your championship,' and it was taken away from him for five years. But he stood up and was willing to take that kind of a risk because of that kind of moral integrity."

If Rabbi Lerner argued that Ali's advocacy, protest, and human rights work are what made him truly memorable, Onondaga Nation Faithkeeper Oren Lyons said it all also ensured that the man of faith would be found in good standing by his higher power. "Peacefully he will arrive at his land," the 86-year-old said.

"His spirit has a clear path to the creator."

Attallah Shabazz — daughter of Ali's old friend, Malcolm X — picked up on that note of faith in an afterlife, calling Ali's death and funeral a "homegoing." 

Many speakers told stories that highlighted the ways in which Ali lived out his very public humanitarian stances in private, in one-on-one exchanges with individuals he'd encounter throughout his life. Private stories of Ali being generous with both his time and money, used to do everything from lift the spirits of individuals to funding healing projects on a global scale, were shared by his children and friends.

Ali, he was said to have often told those around him, was trying to get into heaven by doing good deeds. Louisville radio and television personality John Ramsey recalled Ali's famous belief and quote that "service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth," before telling the champ that he'd more than paid his rent.

The afternoon's closing speaker, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, spoke of Ali's indomitable will, and described him as a "universal soldier for our common humanity." 

Great as his physical gifts were, Clinton pointed out that it was Ali's painstaking mastery of gifts that every person has — of mind and of heart — that set a true example and show us all that we can each be like Ali.

As the fighter's physical condition deteriorated over the years battling Parkinson's disease, Ali was still able to make his reach and influence wider and greater through his example. Though seeming to become more and more trapped within himself as he grew older with his illness, Ali was freer than ever, according to Clinton, and more impactful.

"He was a free man of faith," he ended, "who released the gifts all of us have."


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