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Mourners Gather In Louisville, Ky., For Muhammad Ali Funeral Service

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali traveled through the streets of his hometown, Louisville, Ky., today. The procession began at a funeral home, went along a boulevard named after him and ended at the cemetery. Thousands of people lined the streets. The three-time heavyweight boxing champion died one week ago of respiratory failure after suffering from Parkinson's disease for decades. His funeral service is underway in Louisville at the city's KFC Yum! Center arena. Ali himself planned that service. A family spokesman said the champ wanted the service to be inclusive of everyone. He is being celebrated by boxers, religious figures, journalists, former President Bill Clinton. NPR's Sonari Glinton is there and joins us from Louisville. Hi.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: You've been in Louisville a few days. What have you seen?

GLINTON: Well, it's like every one here in Louisville has gotten word we have to celebrate Muhammad Ali. Buses are flashing The Greatest. There are videos in the downtown. Billboards - businesses have taken up billboards. And there are volunteers walking around passing out water in orange and black I Am Ali shirts. I mean, think about it - you know, I saw a group of elderly white women wearing I Am Ali shirts. And I - you got to imagine that must make him smile somewhere.

SHAPIRO: The roster of speakers is both impressive and long. Give us a highlight or two.

GLINTON: Well, the first half of the service was an ecumenical bonanza. There was a priest, two rabbis. There were Buddhist chants, Native American leaders. And they all emphasized Ali's importance to the world, to Louisville. And Ari, let's listen to Reverend Kevin Cosby talk about Ali's importance to the black community.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN COSBY: I am not saying that Muhammad Ali is the property of black people. He is the property of all people.

(APPLAUSE)

COSBY: But while he is the property of all people, let us never forget that he is the product of black people in their struggle to be free.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: OK, Sonari, you said that was just the first half. What about the second half?

GLINTON: Well, it turned into this real understanding of Muhammad Ali as a character in our lives culturally, but also in the larger world. He was toasted by two of his good friends Billy Crystal and Bryant Gumbel. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILLY CRYSTAL: Experiencing the genius of his talent was absolutely extraordinary. Every one of his fights was an aura of a Super Bowl. He did things nobody would do. He predicted the rounds that he would knock somebody out, and then he would do it. He was funny. He was beautiful. He was the most perfect athlete you'd ever saw, and those are his own words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRYANT GUMBEL: Some of us like him took pride in being black, bold and brash. And because we were so unapologetic, we were in the eyes of many way too uppity. We were way too arrogant. Yet we reveled in being like him.

GLINTON: And that's an important thing to understand, what a figure Muhammad Ali is in the African-American world. I mean, you think about the boxers who came before him - Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis - they weren't the sort of race men that Muhammad Ali was. And if we think about how strange it would have been for him to change his name in the 1960s - I mean, it shows how important he was.

And this whole city getting together to celebrate Muhammad Ali, you start to wonder is it overdoing it? But then you go well, we probably wouldn't do this for any other boxer, and especially no one - there isn't a boxer who comes even close. And they're not any athletes who come close to being the greatest the way Muhammad Ali was. And it seems sort of fitting.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Sonari Glinton, speaking to us from Louisville, Ky., where Muhammad Ali was laid to rest today. Thanks, Sonari.

GLINTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.