On Friday, June 10, I had the distinct honor of attending the public memorial service for boxing legend Muhammad Ali. I was accompanied by life long friends Quinton Lewis, Jackie Scott and Marc Anderson. The trip began on a whim, and somewhat a response to a dare. Ali died June 3, and the following day, after attending the funeral of a family friend, I casually mentioned that once the funeral arrangements were made, that we should go. Accepting my dare, the guys said yes.
Everything fell into place. My childhood friend Pedro Bryant is a banker in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, and he just happened to know the president of the Ali Center. With a phone call, Pedro secured four of the 15,000 free tickets that people were standing in line for hours to get. Jackie, Marc and I left for Louisville on the morning of June 9, dropped my wife off in Atlanta to visit family and friends, headed to Huntsville, Alabama, to pick up Quinton, and then on to Kentucky. Along the way, we decided to chronicle our northern trek by interviewing people along the way (videos are on my Facebook page). While in Louisville, we met people from all over the world.
Muhammad Ali was my hero. I was in the second grade when he knocked out Sonny Liston in Miami Beach back in 1964. Cassius Clay, as he was known then, "shook up the world" and would later become the most recognized person on Earth. During our interviews, we asked people what their fondest memory of Ali was, or his impact on the world, and almost everyone talked about his courage and his willingness to stand. I agreed with their sentiments.
In the early ’60s, blacks were fighting for equal rights. In the Deep South, they were being kept at bay by police dogs and fire hoses as they marched in protest of Jim Crow. Blacks were being jailed, forbidden to drink from the same water fountains as whites, schools were segregated, and blacks were being lynched and assassinated. While this took place, Ali was bold and brash, he spoke loud and proud, he was confident and courageous. And not only did Ali speak loud and proud, he took on the United States government and refused to be inducted into the military. And as if that wasn’t enough, he joined the Nation of Islam. What Ali did back then, most blacks are afraid to do now!
We had very good seats that placed us less than a football field away from Billy Crystal, Will Smith, Mike Tyson, Valerie Jarrett, Bryant Gumbel and former President Bill Clinton, to name a few. Dignitaries included Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
Similar to the Spike Lee movie "Get on the Bus" and the movie "Love Field," where Michelle Pfeiffer pulls out all stops to attend the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, we were determined to make this trip to Louisville, and it was well worth it. I don’t know if anyone else from Hinesville made the trip, but we did, and I think God was granting us traveling grace. The fellowship was great, too.
Over the years, even when slowed by Parkinson’s disease, Ali settled into his greatest role as humanitarian. From his humble roots as a young boy growing up in Louisville, to winning an Olympic gold medal, to being a three-time world heavyweight champion and with his other accomplishments, I can honestly say that Muhammad Ali was the greatest of all times.
Gilliard is the District 5 representative on the Liberty County Board of Commissioners.