Today, Muhammad Ali in the popular imagination is a universally beloved figure. In the outpouring of grief following his death in 2016, the former heavyweight champion was mourned across the world, with over one billion tuning in to his memorial service. Ali’s charisma and campaigning for suffers of Parkinson’s disease particularly endeared him to the world, meaning tributes poured in from across the political spectrum from figures as diverse as Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
However, it was not too long ago that Ali was anything but a universal idol. At the height of the social conflicts of the late 1960s, he emerged as one of the most prominent figures amongst African-American activists, advancing a steadfast critique of American racism and society that resonated strongly with the nation’s black population. The major flashpoint of Ali’s role in these conflicts came 53 years ago today, when he refused to be drafted into the American military and its war in Vietnam.
Before getting there, it’s worth recapping Ali’s story. He was born, as Cassius Clay, in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, in the segregationist South where discrimination against African-Americans was enshrined by the Jim Crow laws, and events such as the brutal murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in 1955 used violence to maintain this white supremacist settlement. After winning a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, he began his professional career, eventually becoming heavyweight champion of the world in 1964, a title he still held by 1967.
But life soon became harder for Ali as his stardom rose. In 1965, the first American ground troops had been deployed to Vietnam, the latest stage of escalation in the conflict after 23,000 American ‘advisors’ had been stationed there by 1964. That meant the rapid stepping up of conscription for young Americans of Ali’s generation. Dyslexia meant he had failed the qualifying exam for the Armed Forces when conscripted in 1962, but now the need for troops in 1966 meant he was eligible to be called-up. That put him on collision course with the American establishment.
Having converted to Islam in 1961, he partially justified his opposition to the war these religious grounds when declaring himself a conscientious objector in 1966. However, the context of black politics at this time was also crucial in explaining Ali’s unswerving refusal to go to war. That same year, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair Stokely Carmichael popularly coined the phrase ‘Black Power’, and in so doing articulated the sentiments of many African-Americans that had grown frustrated at their continued inequality and wanted more fundamental change. Despite the landmark passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965, staggering issues remained for black Americans, with half living in substandard housing, and double the white rate of unemployment and infant mortality.
It was this context that was central to Ali’s reasoning. This was summed up eloquently when he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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?”, as well as his famously arresting statement, “no Viet Cong never called me nigger”. Ali exposed the hypocrisy of America’s claims- it was supposedly fighting in Vietnam for the cause of democracy yet had barely incorporated millions into its democracy at home, whilst leaving them in desperate poverty. At a time when the conscription of the Vietnam War reproducing these inequalities yet again, with 64 per cent of eligible African-Americans drafted versus 31 per cent of whites, and a death rate vastly disproportionate to their numbers in the population when they got to the battlefield, it was a sentiment that struck a chord with many young black Americans.
But in the context of wider American society, it was an incredibly brave statement to make. Even in 1967, the majority of Americans still believed the war was not a mistake, comfortably outnumbering those who shared Ali’s critical opinion. That set the stage for the events that took place on April 28, 1967. Summoned to Houston, Texas for his induction to the Armed Forces, Ali’s name was called. He refused to step forward then refused again, again and again. Despite warnings that he would be committing a felony carrying a sentence of five years in prison, he would not budge.
In reaction, he lost his boxing license, his title and his right to box, before being found guilty of violating drafting laws in June 1967. His sporting career stood in tatters. But what he lost in opportunity to practice his sport, he gained in reputation. Ali’s principled sacrifice made him a hero for those opposing the war, frequently addressing protests by the anti-war movement, including addressing 4,000 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and earnt the admiration of a generation. The basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who would go onto score the most points in NBA history, described how “My admiration for him only grew… He could have allowed himself to be drafted, knowing that the army wouldn’t have put him in harm’s way… for all his clowning and performing, he was at heart a deeply moral man who placed conscience over commerce.”
Even in the mainstream, Ali gained respect. As support for the war began to collapse after the embarrassment of the surprise Tet Offensive attack on America’s ally South Vietnam in January 1968 (a majority now agreed the war was a mistake a month later, 60 per cent did by 1971), Ali’s unbowed opposition to the war began to be vindicated. As Townsend et al. show, the media (even including some African-American papers) that had previously been hostile to Ali, often refusing to call him by his Islamic name and criticising his public persona, were increasingly sympathetic, recognising the principle of his stance. That culminated in his conviction being unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court in Clay v. United States in 1971, paving the way for his return to boxing and his legendary fights with the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
All in all, Ali’s is a legendary tale. One of standing up for principle at great personal cost and one that was vindicated by history. As Abdul-Jabbar’s quote highlights, he could have done it the easy way- signed up, been a poster boy for the war and kept his career. But at a time of such rampant injustice and hypocrisy of American ideals, he put his conscience first. As he increasingly fades into memory, we should remember the Ali of charming charisma and inspiring efforts against Parkinson’s disease. But we must never forget the Ali who stood up for principle, for humanity and for peace.