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    "Needless to say, I was shocked. I tried to keep myself busy with Boxcar (public relations), planning everything. That was by design. I had to be strong for the kids, for the public and for Muhammad. The final trip home, I thought, He’s where he wanted to be.

    “I remember going home in the evenings and turning on the news and it was filled with people from all over the world going to pay their respects at the Ali Center, this memorial growing by the hour. It was huge. It was overwhelming. Then tickets to the service became available and the line was so long it zigzagged across the steps of the Yum! Center, down across the bridge into Indiana. People called me because they couldn’t get flights. I didn’t know what to expect. I knew people would come. I did not know how many people would come.

    “When I say he was pulling the strings, I mean from heaven. From up above, Muhammad was orchestrating all of this. He said he wanted his memorial to be in a stadium or an arena. I thought it sounded ridiculous at the time, but he said, ‘All my fans will come.’ He was right. Even the attorneys who had been with us for 25 years didn’t realize how big this would be. Muhammad said it was going to be standing room only, only he meant the whole city, not just the Yum! Center.

    “We decided to add the procession. We wanted people who were not able to attend to be a part of it. He belonged to the city and wanted them to say goodbye. Everybody — every walk of life, every color, every political persuasion, young, old — joined together happy and waving. People in their chairs with signs and flowers. One little boy ran aside the motorcade. He must have been eight or nine. I thought, Oh, my gosh, this child really understands who Muhammad is. It was sad, but it was joyous. It gave Muhammad’s family — his children who were not raised here, his grandchildren — the opportunity to see how their father affected the lives of so many people. And the service itself was perfect. It was just the way he wanted it. If I took what was in my head, that was it. Not just for Muhammad, but the way it brought people together. I will always be indebted to the city of Louisville. I will always be indebted to Greg Fischer.

    “I should have known how big it would be. It still surprises me. I think we’re normal. We live like anybody else. Even though he loved being a celebrity — if anyone was meant to be a celebrity, it was him — we didn’t live with bodyguards or pomp and circumstance or an entourage. I shopped, I cleaned, I took out the garbage. We were raised in Louisville, Kentucky. We are Kentucky. Kentuckians are grounded people.

    “It showed Muslims around the world and in America, but especially in the Middle East, that this Muslim American who was black was honored in a way that probably no one else was honored in the U.S. because of how he carried himself, always doing good deeds. Muhammad never shunned anybody — I do mean anybody. Not that he approved of everything someone does.

    “I had a call from President Clinton a few weeks later. He was calling to check on me. He said, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever attend anything like that in my life — I don’t think I’ve ever attended anything like that and I don’t think I’ll ever attend anything like that again in my life.’ Muhammad affected one person at a time. He opened his heart and loved each and every person he met. They knew it. People knew it.

    “Afterwards, I jumped into things to distract myself. But I’ve had time to think. The kids and I have difficult days but we get through it. It’s lonesome, that’s obvious. This Saturday, Nov. 19, is our 30th anniversary.

    “Nobody knows me. I am under the radar — I like to be under the radar. But people have stopped me in the store and on the street and they say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ and I say, ‘Of course you can.’ I feel protected and I feel supported. And because of him that’s what’s being extended to me. Because of Muhammad’s legacy, I have to be more conscious of how I respond to and welcome people. I’m a conduit, in a way, for them to connect to him. I have the opportunity to carry it on and carry it forward. It’s his legacy, but it becomes mine as well. Especially now in a country that is so divided, his voice needs to be heard loud and clear. I just wish every day could be like June the 10th. People didn’t care who the other person was. They forgot their differences. I wish every day could be like that.”

     

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    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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