MUHAMMAD ALI’S DEFIANCE
““Mr. Cassius Clay, you will please step forward and be inducted into the United States Army.”
On the morning of April 28, 1967, the greatest heavyweight boxer in the world stood in the Armed Forces Induction Center in Houston. An Army Lieutenant had summoned him three times. Muhammad Ali refused to acknowledge the order or respond to his birth name – the name he had shed four years earlier upon his conversion to Islam. The name authorities insisted on using. The “slave name,” as Ali referred to it. “I am Muhammad Ali,” the human and civil rights icon once stated. “A free name – it means ‘beloved of God’, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
On religious and moral grounds, Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. He could have fled to Canada, a decision tens of thousands of young American men made during that era. Instead, he chose to stay and face the music – to lead by example despite the harrowing consequences. Ali famously explained his stance against the war as follows:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me ‘nigger’, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.
Consequences of protest
It was an act of defiance that instantly made him an enemy of a significant proportion of the American population – mostly white people but also some black Americans who felt he was hurting their cause. Ali’s principled decision meant sacrificing millions of dollars in income, and, of course, nearly cost him his freedom.
On that very day in 1967, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended Ali’s boxing license and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his championship title. He was banned from the sport for three years – at the age of 25 in the absolute prime of his career.
On May 8, 1967, Ali was indicted by a federal grand jury on the felony charge of violating selective service laws. He was convicted six weeks later, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. The Houston jury had consisted of six white men and six white women.
Ali was freed on bail while he appealed the conviction. However, he was required to surrender his passport and was prohibited from earning money as a boxer. He spent much of that time speaking at college campuses for, quite literally, pennies on the dollar.
Furthermore, Ali was broadly denounced in the United States and received countless death threats. In 1968, prominent American TV producer and talk show host David Susskind confronted the young boxer on The Eamonn Andrews Show, a British talk show. Susskind stated, “I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
Rise and redemption
However, as time went on, and as the Vietnam War became less popular, Americans and people worldwide began to rally around Ali as a symbol of righteousness and hope. He gained an unlikely ally in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was generally at odds with the Nation of Islam – the African-American political and religious movement Ali embraced. Said King, “As Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”
On June 28, 1971 the United States Supreme Court unexpectedly and very narrowly overturned Ali’s conviction, citing a technical error by the Department of Justice.
Ali’s greatest achievements in the boxing ring may have come after his return to action in 1970. In his first bout after suspension, he knocked out Jerry Quarry. However, he lost to Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden in March 1971. Ali won their rematch in 1974 by decision. Then, in October 1974 he knocked out the great George Foreman at the legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire. Very few boxing experts believed that Ali had even the slightest chance of winning that contest.
On November 9, 2005, President George W. Bush presented Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During the ceremony, President Bush stated, “the American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own.”
Muhammad Ali, who suffered from severe Parkinson’s disease, passed away on June 2, 2016. His memorial was viewed by over 1 billion people worldwide.