LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bill Clinton was given the honor of the last words, and he got them precisely right as he summed up a weeklong, global remembrance of Muhammad Ali here Friday.
The former President eulogized the late boxer by calling him a “universal soldier for our common humanity.”
Thus in six tidy words did he get to the essence of what became a celebration of the world’s diversity and commonality, and of how Ali honored both, and inspired others to do the same.
Friday’s events were only the culmination, but they illustrated all of the above, from a procession through the streets of Ali’s hometown, followed by his burial, to a three-hour memorial service at the KFC Yum! Center.
The audience was full of A-list celebrities from many walks of life, but all you needed to know to get the theme was to listen to the speakers Ali and his wife, Lonnie, had hand-picked for when the time came.
There was Clinton. And Long Beach’s own Billy Crystal, who called Ali, “my big brother.” And Malcolm X’s daughter, Atallah Shabazz. And native Americans in full dress. And a Buddhist chant. And Sen. Orrin Hatch representing Mormons.
A minister named Kevin Cosby had the arena rocking as he spoke of Ali building pride among blacks in the 1960s. A rabbi named Michael Lerner also drew cheers during a fiery, heavily political speech that touched on everything from marijuana laws to a reference to the Turks’ treatment of Kurds.
So it went on a day and night in which Louisville turned into an international convention of the common humanity Clinton referenced, a multiethnic service that undoubtedly would have pleased Ali.
It’s a small world, after all, and no one understood that better than the three-time heavyweight champion.
There is no disputing that Ali dedicated himself to peace and goodwill as he evolved over a half-century from a lightning rod to someone Crystal compared to “a tremendous bolt of lightning.”
But in the relative silence of the Parkinson’s disease that affected him for the last three decades of his life, he became a convenient canvas on which others could project their image of him.
If so, so what? By the end, there was not a man or woman on Earth who would have inspired the reaction we have witnessed since Ali died at 74 on June 3.
Bob Wilson, 68, drove up from Huntsville, Alabama, to pay tribute.
“This is my last opportunity to pay homage and respect to a truly legendary figure,” he said as he waited for the Ali motorcade to pass by. “He was a man who represented much to the black community — and to the world.”
(Wilson later fainted in the heat and required medical attention, and missed the procession.)
Waiting near by Wilson on an overpass at the Muhammad Ali Center was George Kalinsky, Madison Square Garden’s official photographer for 50 years. He shot Ali’s iconic fight against Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, among others.
“Muhammad has given so much courage all his life to so many people,” Kalinsky said, “and he’s had the courage to give to so many people inspiration and hope and love, probably more than any other person.”
Inside the arena, Miguel Reyes, 39, of Manhattan, had taken his seat three hours before the service would begin.
“When a man of this magnitude passes away, and left so much for us to learn from, your life has to take a pause, no matter what you’re doing,” he said.
“This is a moment in life that I say to myself, you know what, Miguel, there’s not going to be another day like this. You have to do whatever — the impossible — to make sure you come.”