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     “About eight years ago, I was vacationing with my family at Disney World and I got a phone call from Lonnie Ali, and she said that, in the event that Muhammad passes, we want you to be one of the eulogists. When she said it, I was thinking it was something imminent, that he was ill. She said, ‘No, but we know that it is inevitable.’

    “The reason they selected me is because I eulogized his mother, Odessa Clay, at St. Stephen Church and he was there. My eulogy for Odessa was: from the root to the fruit. I explained how the fruit is visible — he was the fruit — but the root — Odessa, his mother — is underground, so we don’t see the root that produced the fruit. And as I explained that during the funeral, he stood up in affirmation and applause, which was one of the greatest honors of my life. Over the years, I would go to his mother’s house, and Muhammad and I would talk, mostly about discipline, what it takes to be great.

    “The thesis of my message about Ali was he helped like no other figure in American history to get black people to celebrate their somebodiness. (From the eulogy: “Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty.’ ‘Black and pretty’ was an oxymoron.” — Ed.) What I wanted to communicate was the radical Muhammad Ali. And that not only was he from Louisville, but west Louisville. To a great degree we have domesticated Ali. We have made him a convenient hero. We call him a transcendent figure, which is true. People of all cultures, of all religions, of all races, have an affinity with Ali because he exhibited universal traits and values — conviction, courage, endurance, the ability not to internalize self-pity — that all people who are great embrace regardless of culture, religion or race. But while he is transcendent, he is a product of black pain, black suffering and the black resistance against the evils of white supremacy. To forget that is to be dishonest. Some people like the fruit but don’t accept the root. The same eulogy I gave for his mother. My objective was to show what it was that gave birth to Muhammad Ali — the suffering and pain of black people — in hopes that America might ask: In this day of Black Lives Matter and Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore and Freddie Gray — have we changed? The conclusion depends on how honest people want to be. When you’re celebrating the best it makes you behave at your best. But the murder rate the same year we celebrated Muhammad Ali is at an all-time high in west Louisville. That means that feel-good clichés are not enough. To truly advance Ali’s agenda requires systemic and structural change.

    “While delivering the eulogy from the stage, I could only see the first three rows because of the lights. When I said, ‘You can’t place a bet on a horse in the Kentucky Derby when it’s already in the winner’s circle; you have to bet with the horse when it’s still in the mud,’ I’ll never forget: Bill Clinton fell out. That’s one thing I’ll never forget, that Bill Clinton lost it, like I had just jabbed him like Ali. Bill Clinton came up to me after he finished his eulogy and whispered in my ear, ‘You were amazing.’”

     

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