LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Lonnie Ali was her husband’s greatest champion. She is now embracing the role of chief advocate for his legacy.
The woman who was Muhammad Ali’s partner in promoting the humanitarian ideals that dominated his life after the boxing ring received a standing ovation Friday as she took the stage in an oversized hat that shielded her eyes. The crowd of about 15,000 broke into the familiar chants of “Ali, Ali.”
Marveling at the outpouring of support, Lonnie Ali said the condolences for her family had “come in every language, from every corner of the globe.”
“As a family, we thank the millions of people who through the miracle of social media, inspired by their love for Muhammad, have reached out to us with their prayers,” she said.
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“From wherever you are watching, know that we have been humbled by your heartfelt expressions of love.”
The tributes also came from other family members, including daughter Maryum Ali, one of Ali’s nine children.
“If I had a dollar for every story about my father, I could paper the sky,” she said.
Said another daughter, Rasheda Ali-Walsh: “You shook up the world in life, now you’re shaking up the world in death. Now you are free to be with your creator. We love you so much, Daddy. Until we meet again, fly butterfly fly.”
At a private reception following the memorial service, Ali’s son, Asaad Amin Ali, said he looked around at his sisters this week and it occurred to him that each one carried a slice of their father in her.
Maryum and Miya have his humor; Laila got his grit; Jamillah and Khaliah got his kindness; Rasheda and Hana inherited his good looks.
His mother, Lonnie, has been “the backbone of this family forever,” he said. He said she’s “had a hard time” in the days since Ali’s death but praised her grit.
“Every time she’s felt sad or wanted to cry, she always thought, ‘Well, what would Muhammad want?’ And that’s for her to be strong,” he said. “She’s followed through with that.”
Pivoting to her husband’s legacy at the memorial, Lonnie Ali spoke about his remarkable life journey and its lessons for others.
Ali rose from humble beginnings in his hometown of Louisville to achieve global fame as the three-time heavyweight champion. His final years were marked by his fight against Parkinson’s disease.
Years ago, Ali indicated that when the end came, “he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world,” his wife said Friday.
“He wanted us to remind people who are suffering, that he had seen the face of injustice,” she said. “That he grew up in segregation, and that during his early life, he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
The role as chief advocate for her husband’s legacy is one Lonnie Ali assumed years ago. The couple met when Lonnie was just a little girl because their mothers were friends. Years later, she became his fourth wife. They were married for nearly 30 years.
The pair championed the Muhammad Ali Center, a lasting tribute in Louisville to his boxing career and his humanitarian ideals. The center promotes Ali’s six core principles — confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
They were the driving force behind the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards. Past recipients have included former President Jimmy Carter, former NFL great and civil rights advocate Jim Brown and singer and activist Harry Belafonte.
As her husband’s public voice turned to a whisper, and finally was muted, she picked up the mantle in championing his social causes.
“He was sure-footed in his self-awareness, secure in his faith and he did not fear death,” she said Friday. “Yet his timing is once again poignant. His passing and its meaning for our times should not be overlooked. As we face uncertainty in the world and divisions at home as to who we are as a people, Muhammad’s life provides useful guidance.”
One of those core beliefs was “the strength of our diversity” as a society, she said.