Boxer, activist, and global icon Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016.
Seven days later tens of thousands of people gathered in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to pay their respects. Four Morehead-Cain Scholars are working in Louisville this summer, and all four attended his public memorial service.
Their reflections of that experience are below (photos by Eric Lee ’18).
Sarah Gilmour ’18
For a few days, the entire world watched one mid-sized city in Kentucky.
Media coverage was intense, and it all revolved around Muhammad Ali and his hometown of Louisville. Thanks to the Civic Collaboration summer, we were lucky enough to experience the historic moment in person.
Watching the memorials for Muhammad Ali was a unique opportunity to witness the tremendous love held in this city. Many government officials had talked to us proudly of how their city is a compassionate place, but I had always brushed it off as political fluff with little real substance. After witnessing the public celebrations of Ali’s life and his funeral service, it is clear to me that Louisville does care deeply.
The moment of realization hit me when we participated in a march from Ali’s high school in the Russell neighborhood to the Muhammad Ali Center downtown. The crowd blocked intersections as it marched, and I expected that we would be met with angry honks from the cars that had been forced into a standstill in the middle of rush hour. This time, however, the cars were full of people waving, holding up their fists in solidarity, and honking to show their support.
Only Muhammad Ali could have brought the city together like that in a powerful demonstration of love and unity. Volunteering at the Islamic Prayer service and attending the funeral at the KFC Yum Center reaffirmed Ali’s unique power to unite diverse groups of people from across disparate life experiences. The crowd that streamed in the door at the prayer service spoke many languages, worshipped in different ways, came from various countries, and dressed in ways that reflected their unique backgrounds, but above all they were united in their love for one incredible man.
In the midst of our country’s divisive political rhetoric and horrific violence, we witnessed a service that seamlessly blended together numerous faith traditions and highlighted the fact that love is the bedrock of our shared humanity, not hate.
Our volunteer t-shirts read “I AM ALI,” but it is more accurate to say that we are all Ali.
Destinee Grove ’17
The city was alive.
Louisville was buzzing, vibrantly teeming with culture and people from all corners of the world coming to honor the Greatest of All Time. Muhammad Ali wasn’t just a national treasure; his spirit and character were admired the world over.
People came in droves to pay homage to the man that broke barriers for black people and Muslims, that stood up for the disadvantaged and forgotten, that never faltered in the face of adversity. But before Ali became even a national treasure, he was most heralded and believed in by his friends on the West Side.
Too few times, do you see intentional, unfacilitated interaction between the predominantly black West Side of Louisville and its predominantly white counterpart in the East. However, even in his death Ali was able to break one more barrier. People of color from the West Side and the world abroad filled the streets of East Louisville and the seats of the Yum Center to honor this man beloved by all.
To see so many people of various colors, religions and faiths, and walks of life, convene together in one of the most segregated cities in America was a true testament to Ali’s belief that everyone was equal. And I think that’s the simple beauty of remembering him: that we could all come together as one people, and stand united for something and someone greater than any of us alone.
Eric Lee ’18
When the news broke that Muhammad Ali had finally succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, Louisville mourned. Within hours, billboards were painted with tributes to Ali, marches were organized to honor his life, and a monumental funeral was planned as the champion was transported back to his hometown.
To me, it was all a bit puzzling. Although I admired Ali as an athlete and an activist, he hadn’t competed in more than three decades—he was simply before my time. I watched in amazement as tens of thousands of people lined up to attend a four-hour-long memorial service in a crowded stadium.
As I waited to enter the stadium, I took refuge from the heat in a shaded clearing. A Pakistani man in a pressed suit sat down beside me and introduced himself.
“How ya doing?” I asked him.
“A bit tired. I flew in this morning from Manchester.”
“Wow, that’s pretty far away. Were you a big boxing fan?”
“Oh, I don’t care much for boxing. I am Muslim, and Muhammad Ali was one of the most important Muslims who ever lived. He introduced the world to peace and justice in Islam.”
After a pause, he asked me, “Are you a boxing fan?”
That’s when I understood. Like most people my age, I had never been a fan of boxing. I’d never set foot in a boxing ring, never spectated at a boxing match, never even watched a late night boxing match on cable TV. Yet there I was, waiting in sweltering heat with thousands of people who also had never seen Ali compete in a boxing match.
We were there because Muhammad Ali transcended sports stardom. Although his exploits in the ring propelled him to fame, his deeds outside it—refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, negotiating the release of hostages in Iraq, embracing his role as a black Muslim leader in a hostile and racist era—defined his legacy.
This summer, I witnessed a great outpouring of love and kindness in Louisville. Social barriers were effortlessly broken down, across races, religions, and economic strata, to honor this great man. In life, he lived by principles of compassion, peace, and unity. And in death, he reminded the people of Louisville to do the same.
Gaby Nair ’18
All eyes were on Louisville, Kentucky, when Muhammad Ali passed away.
All eyes are not on Louisville very often. I’d say the only other time it happens is the day of the Kentucky Derby. But, luckily, we were in Louisville to witness this incredible event, Muhammad Ali’s memorial.
As a proud Louivillian, Ali wanted to be memorialized and laid to rest in his hometown. And, his hometown delivered.
Thankfully, we got the opportunity to attend the service. The tickets to the public memorial in the Yum! Center (the University of Louisville’s answer to the Dean Dome) were free but first come-first serve.
Tickets were available on the Wednesday before the funeral, and people were allowed to line-up outside the Yum! Center box office starting at 6:00 a.m., and tickets would be handed out at 10:00 a.m. There were 15,000 tickets available, and each person in line was allowed to get four.
On that day, I woke up at 5:30 a.m., grabbed a sweatshirt, a book, and a bottle of water and waited in line at the box office alone to make sure that we got tickets.
More than anything else, I was surprised by the kindness of the people in line with me. When the ticket rush started early (around 8:30), they made sure that I remained with them in line. One gentleman kept looking around, saying, “Where’s the girl?” (me), making sure that I got my four tickets at the same time that he and his son did.
This was a simple outpouring of kindness, but it is in keeping with Ali’s teaching and living example of compassion.