Muhammad Ali, who died last week at 74 from septic shock related to his 30-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease, may have been the greatest heavyweight boxer of al time. He was most definitely the most famous person in the world in the 1970s and a big part of that fame came from his struggle against the United States government after he refused induction into the Army in 1967.
Ali (born Cassius Clay in Louisville, KY) was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He famously said, “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.”
His most incendiary quote from the time when came when he tied his refusal to serve to the civil rights struggle at home:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
The boxer managed to stay out of prison as he appealed the conviction and the United States Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction in 1971. Ali lost three years in the prime of his career, though, and didn’t return to the ring until October 1970 when he defeated Jerry Quarry.
In 1968, Muhammad Ali appeared on the cover of Esquire Magazine in a pose inspired by paintings of Saint Sebastian, who was persecuted for his Christian beliefs by the Roman emperor Diocletian.
Malcolm X helped recruit the young boxer to the Nation of Islam in 1964, around the time he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship. His claim to conscientious objector status was based on the teachings of the sect’s leader Elijah Muhammad. The 1971 Supreme Court ruling that overturned his conviction and recognized his conscientious objector status was unanimous. Ali later converted to traditional Islam.
After his surprising boxing success in his thirties, Ali became a kind of roving goodwill ambassador even as he fought against the devastating effects of his Parkinson’s disease.
His passing provides a reminder of just how contentious the Vietnam era was: Ali’s struggles in the 1960s and 1970s touch on the era’s flashpoint issues of race, class, religion and the draft.
After years of condemnation from the media and much of mainstream America, the Supreme Court decided that Muhammad Ali was a conscientious objector. It’s now almost 50 years since the boxer was drafted. What do you think: common draft dodger or man of principle? Sound off!