LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It was shortly before noon Thursday when a black hearse rolled slowly to a stop at Freedom Hall, cell-phone clutching mourners watching as the cherry wood casket of Muhammad Ali was carried into the north wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center.

As Ali's body was rolled into the large hall filled with thousands of people -- with thousands more in overlflow seating inside Freedom Hall -- there was traditional chanting and singing that marked the beginning of a two-day series of memorial services for one of Louisville's most famous sons.

The janazah was open to all, but was meant as a chance for Muslims to say goodbye to a man considered to be a hero of their faith.

Imam Zaid Shakir, co-founder of the Zaytuna College in Berkley, Calif., began the service by saying to the crowd, "We welcome the Muslims, we welcome the members of other faith communities, we welcome the law enforcement community. We welcome our sisters, our elders, our youngsters."

Shakir continued by separating the Muslims from non-Muslims, then by asking the female Muslims to move to the back of the service.

The 40-minute ceremony was believed to be the largest Muslim funeral and prayer service to be ever held on American soil. Traditional Muslim prayers such as "Allahu Akbar" which means "God is greatest" were said over the body of the three-time heavyweight champion, who died last Friday night after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. 

Muslim clerics also read from the Quran, with the chosen verses translated into English.

"For millions, perhaps billions of people....the passing of Muhammad Ali has made us all feel a little more alone in the world," said Sherman Jackson, a Muslim scholar at the University of Southern California.

Jackson added that Ali's brilliance "lies in the fact that he touched us all where we needed, in our hearts and in the depths of our souls."

"He helped America do and see some things that America was not quite ready to do or see on its own," Jackson said. "Ali was the people's champion, and champion he did the cause of his people."

Ali was heralded for advancing the cause of black Americans during and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s and also for the heroics he showed both on and out of the boxing ring. 

Attendees of all races and creeds came from around the nation and across the world and it was a large and sometimes unwieldy crowd, which drew such dignitaries as Jesse Jackson, Don King and Sugar Ray Leonard. 

Kim Clay of Louisville and his three young grandchildren were among the first to arrive at the service early Thursday morning. Seven-year-old Tramell Hayes carried an All-Star vinyl figure of Muhammad Ali, while his younger sisters Maliyah, 7, and Italy, 5, were dressed in their Sunday best, clutching colorful roses they hoped to bring inside Freedom Hall.

"I brought them to be a part of important history and to pay our respects to Muhammad Ali," said Clay, who is a Christian. "It's so inspiring to see all of the different religious backgrounds here. To me, that is what faith is supposed to be about. Nowadays, we don't understand that as much as we should."

Thursday's crowd was a far larger than the one that watched Ali’s last fight in Freedom Hall, on Nov. 29, 1961.

On that night, 4,012 watched then-Cassius Clay win his 10th professional fight in a seventh-round technical knockout of Willie Besmanoff -- a bowling alley manager who Courier-Journal reporter Larry Boeck wrote that Clay beat "like he was the head pin in a 300 game."

And a far different place. Louisville, in that day, still was operating under many Jim Crow laws, and would not begin the process of desegregation for years. On the front page of the Louisville newspaper that day, a headline reported that black five freedom riders had been driven out of a bus station in Mississippi.

Just 19 years old, Clay improved to 10-0. His 29-year-old opponent that night told the newspaper, "He can't punch. He has an unorthodox style and very fast. he’s not anything compared to the big boys. I was just too slow."

Clay countered, "Guys just can't see it, just can’t believe it. They underestimate my ability. If I was 29 and a 12-year-old boy beat me, I wouldn't believe it either."

A final goodbye for Ali will take place on Friday, when a total of 31,500 people are expected to attend a memorial service at the KFC YUM! Center. Around 15,500 tickets were issued, while the rest are invited guests and speakers. The arena will be at capacity.

Thursday afternoon officials will announce the lineup of the funeral, which will include eulogies from former U.S. President Bill Clinton and actor Billy Chrystal. A Protestant minister, representative from the Catholic Church, a rabbi, a representative from Buddhism and a Mormon senator are also expected to speak at the interfaith service.

Ali's official obituary is expected to be released Thursday afternoon, but a family spokesman said he began crafting details of his own funeral years ago, insisting on an open and inclusive service.

The Ali Center will be closed Friday for a private reception with 1,000 invited guests. The family will be presented with a gift from the U.S. Olympic Committee and from the U.S. Boxing Council.

Anyone who has a ticket to the funeral at the Yum! Center can park for free at the Kentucky Exposition Center beginning at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. Shuttle service will be provided for people with tickets between the Kentucky Exposition Center and the KFC Yum! Center. Shuttle service starts at 8:30 a.m.

People with tickets can also take TARC for free to get to the KFC Yum! Center. On Friday, there will be traffic control for the procession, as well as security at Cave Hill Cemetery and at the KFC Yum! Center.

For more information about the upcoming memorial services, parking, shuttles and bus routes go to www.AliLouisville.com.


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