Muhammad Ali’s wide influence on display as world says goodbye
These examples are good because they demonstrate ways of being prophetic
—Thomas Merton, on Malcolm X, The Springs Of Contemplation.
LOUISVILLE – The sweep of a person’s life can be measured by many things. For example, if it is the weekend of your funeral, and a person wandering through the lobby of a hotel like the Brown here sees Kris Kristofferson being introduced to the president of Turkey, chances are you’ve touched people from many lands and from many walks of life. (It can be assumed that you are a person of some influence if, on the morning of your memorial service, the president of Turkey bails on the event because he was not allowed to play a larger role in it.) There was a sweetness and gentleness to the way this city said goodbye to Muhammad Ali that wrapped itself around everything and everyone the way a steady breeze took the edge of the heat that otherwise sat upon Louisville like a shawl.
On Friday, as they took Ali from the funeral home to the cemetery in a procession that wound through the places in his life like a motorcade going through the stations of the cross, an estimated 100,000 people lined the sidewalks and the grassy islands along the wide boulevards, chanting as the hearse went by that steady chant that became Ali’s trademark as he prepared to turn the world upside down in Zaire against the unbeatable George Foreman. It was, to be sure, an odd thing to chant as a funeral procession passes down the street.
Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye!
Ali, kill him. Ali, kill him.
And they all smiled their smiles, brighter than the sun.
The crowd was particularly thick at the corner of Ninth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, which used to be Walnut Street before a one-vote majority of the city council voted to change the name in 1978. There were parents with children, and children with dogs, and reporters from Germany and France trying to make themselves understood to the parents and to the children and (occasionally) to the dogs, as well. A few of them drifted by Erasmo Pino, a strikingly tall man with a shaved head and a great sense of reverence about him.
Seventeen years ago, when he was 20, Pino won a lottery that allowed him to emigrate from Cuba to the United States. He was a gifted volleyball player who’d risen through the regimented national athletic program that Cuba had modeled after the one in the Soviet Union until he was good enough to play internationally and also to become a coach. But the Soviet Union collapsed and with it, what was left of the Cuban economy that hadn’t been shredded by the economic boycott that the United States had dropped on the island. Shortly thereafter, in the wake of a bad storm, Muhammad Ali came to Cuba to deliver food and clothing. Pino got a pair of shoes. Consequently, when he won the lottery for a chance legally to emigrate to the United States, Pino spent one month in Miami before setting out for Louisville, where he took a job in a Ford factory and he works there to this day.
“I know Louisville because of Muhammad Ali,” he said. “When Muhammad Ali come to Cuba, with food and clothes for the Cuban people, and I got my shoes, I knew he was a great man. And when I come to this country, and I am in Miami, I tell people I want to go to Louisville, Kentucky because that is where Muhammad Ali is from. So Louisville, Kentucky is my home now. It is my city because it was the city of Muhammad Ali.”
The cortege made a right hand turn, now going west, right in front of Erasmo Pino. The hearse carrying the mortal remains of Muhammad Ali turned off Ninth Street onto what once was Walnut Street and is now and forever Muhammad Ali Boulevard. All around Erasmo Pino, the chant rose again.
Ali, kill him!
Damned if all the smiles and the sunshine didn’t make it sound like a prayer.
The memorial service in the preposterously named KFC-Yum! Center was the final, and most formal goodbye. Clergy of every possible faith, from a Muslim Imam to a Roman Catholic monsignor to a liberal Rabbi named Michael Lerner who almost burned the building down, to Buddhist monks and Native American holy men offered prayers in a half-dozen languages. Billy Crystal offered a muted, lovely account of his long friendship with Ali, and Bill Clinton, still hoarse from the campaign trail, offered praise for what he called the second act of Ali’s life, the fight against the Parkinson’s that turned off Ali’s faculties like someone steadily turning off each light in a great house.
“I will always think of Muhammad as a truly free man of faith,” Clinton said. “Being a man of faith, he realized he would never be in full control of his life. Something like Parkinson’s could come along. But being free, he realized that life still was open to choices. It is the choices that Muhammad Ali made that have brought us all here today. The second part of his life was more important because he refused to be imprisoned by disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandela was kept prisoner in South Africa. The second half of his life he perfected gifts that we all have—every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart. It’s just that he found a way to release them in ways large and small.”
But, in truth, the service was shot through with respect for the first part of Ali’s remarkable time among us. His principled stand against the Vietnam War, his spiritual passage from the Nation of Islam to Sufi Islam, and his status as a revolutionary figure in a turbulent time all were honored as richly and sincerely as the good works he did around the world. And nowhere was that more clear than when Ambassador Shabazz, the daughter of the murdered Malcolm X, rose to speak. Her voice was breaking at first, and she asked for the spirit of her father to give her the breath to go on. And she did.
The saga of Malcolm X and Ali is the great epic tale of Ali’s early career. Malcolm’s pilgrimage from the Nation of Islam to actual Islam, from Malcolm X to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was virtually the same spiritual journey that Ali made, but Malcolm made it in the course of the last three years of his life and, when he did, he became estranged from Ali, who clung to the Nation and Elijah Muhammad, to whom Malcolm X had brought him in the first place. So Ambassador Shabazz’s eulogy was far more freighted than any of the others were. And when she rounded into her peroration, her words echoed in history like stones dropped down a well.
“While he and I had a treasured relationship, the genesis of this love was through the love of my father. Muhammad Ali was the last of a fraternity of amazing men bequeathed to me directly by my dad,” she said. “My Dad would always say, when departing from someone, ‘May we meet again in the light of understanding.’ And I say to you with the light of that compass…”
…by any means necessary.”
This, of course, was one of her father’s more famous admonitions. In 1965, the year he was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, Malcolm X famously declared, “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.” This was taken as both a warning and a promise, and the promise scared more people than the warning did. But it now has come down through the generations, from two men who went on a truly American hajj through the country’s bleeding and dangerous places, until a woman who was a daughter of one of them used it as valedictory and blessing to the other one. And the applause that greeted it was so warm and welcoming that damned if it didn’t sound like a prayer.
On March 18, 1958, while running some errands, a Trappist monk from the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani stopped at the corner of Fourth Street and Walnut Avenue in downtown Louisville and was struck down by an overwhelming feeling of love and revelation.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
At that moment, Thomas Merton resolved to leave his cloistered existence and involve himself in the history of his times. That spot where Merton first saw through to the common heart of humanity is now called Thomas Merton Square. It is at the intersection of Fourth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
In 1967, Merton wrote an extended essay entitled, “The Meaning of Malcolm X,” and what he wrote about the spiritual explorations of Ali’s mentor could well be describing the journey that Ali made over the course of his 74 years.
“When he was once again on his own he quickly discovered a whole new dimension of things. He began to get a much deeper, more mature, more sophisticated and more nuanced understanding of the revolutionary situation. He also, at the same time, experienced an unusual deepening of his religious experience of Islam."
Merton was as revolutionary a figure in Catholicism as Ali was in boxing. They were both men of their times. Both men crossed paths—in Merton’s case, purely in an intellectual sense—with Malcolm X and were moved in much the same way. Both men crossed paths with the Dalai Lama. Both men broke old and rigid paradigms and both of them had their revelations. Merton’s came in a flash of a moment. Ali’s came over several decades but, and this is the most important thing, they both arrived at last at the same place, where all religions flow into one another, and where the Imam and the Onondaga holy man have an equal place in the roster of mourners. Both were men of Louisville, as was Erasmo Pino, who came from Cuba in the shoes that Muhammad Ali had given him. And all the corners of all the streets sang with happiness on the day Ali was laid to rest, gone to glory, and damned if the whole bright day didn’t seem like a prayer.