Muhammad Ali has lost his final fight at 74-years-old and the world remembers a man who can only be described as The Greatest.
Ali’s greatest victory was not that over Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title as a 6/1 underdog. Nor was it regaining the belt ten years later at 32-years-old against George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire. It was his battle with the American government over his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
Whilst his in the ring exploits are known by many and his charismatic personality known by all, Ali was forced out of the ring during the very pinnacle of his career. He had forgone money and fame for his religious beliefs. Had he been able to fight for those three years, perhaps he would have had an even greater boxing legacy than he does today.
In 1964 Muhammad Ali’s draft status was 1-Y, which meant he failed the standards of service for the US military. However, in 1966 his status was changed to 1-A, which meant he was now eligible for unrestricted military service. Ali appealed as a conscientious objector but his local board rejected it, without stating its reasons. In 1967 Ali changed his legal residence to Houston and appealed to be reclassified as a Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, and therefore could not go to war, but this was also rejected (Pusey 2015).
Marqusee (2005) described how after learning of his reclassification Ali was inundated with press queries and aired his anti-war stance to the nation via Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times with one of Ali’s most famous quotes: “Man, I aint got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
His view may seem outlandish in today’s world, but here stood an Olympic gold medalist, who could not get served food at a restaurant in his own country because of the colour of his skin, who was now being told to fight on the other side of the world in a war for white politicians.
On April 28 1967, Ali appeared at his induction for the U.S. Armed Forces and it was reported by some sections of the media that he wouldn’t have the conviction to follow through with his previous objections. Ezra (2009) wrote: “White sportswriters, many of whom had already declared the folly of Ali’s position, predicted that he would apologize to save the fight. They assumed that boxing and the paydays that accompanied it were more important to the champion than his anti-war stand. They wrote that he would withdraw from political matters in the future and that he had learned his lesson.”
Ali passed his medical and blood tests, but when it came to taking the step-forward at the call of his name, he refused to do so. Three times. Lipsyte wrote the following day: “Lieut. Col. J. Edwin McKee, commander of the station, announced that ‘Mr. Muhammad Ali has just refused to be inducted.’”
Ali was charged with refusal to be inducted into the US military and would be due in court two months later to be convicted. Ali refused to answer any questions from the media and instead handed out a four-page statement in which he directly addressed the treatment he had received by the press. It read: “I strongly object to the fact so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to jail or go into the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice.”
Bernstein (2002) told of the immediate backlash the champion faced: “Within hours of his declaration that he would refuse to serve in the US army, citing his religious and political objections to the war, the WBC had stripped Ali of the title. The Los Angeles Times immediately proclaimed: ‘Clay is a black Benedict Arnold’; while, according to the New York Times: ‘Clay could have been the most popular of all champions but he attached himself to a hate organisation’. Congressman Frank Clark stated: ‘The heavyweight champion of the world turns my stomach. To back off from the commitment of serving his country is as unthinkable as surrendering to Adolf Hitler or Mussolini’.”
The coverage came during a time where television was increasing in popularity but newspapers where still the primary source of news. Everywhere Ali went it seemed he was followed by packs of television cameras, radio reporters and newspaper journalists all looking for a quote from one of the most recognisable and charismatic men on the planet in order for their product to appeal to more people.
Ali polarised opinion and it was his influence on civil rights issues where he had the most profound effect during a time of high racial tension in America. Epps (2012) wrote: “Ali’s example inspired Martin Luther King Jr. – who had been reluctant alienate the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda – to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.” This pressure would force Government to at least think about its stance towards the war.
Ali’s act of defiance ignited a public debate that encompassed everything from politics, race and religion, the ramifications of which were felt nationwide. Gilmore (2011) writes: “Julian Bond, a social activist who had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, said: ‘When Ali refused to take that symbolic step forward, everyone knew it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People who had never thought about the war – black and white – began to think about it because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.’”
Perhaps Muhammad Ali was the most prominent figure to portray the message: “black lives matter.” Not only was this the essence of his views, but he was speaking on a global scale; brown lives matter, yellow lives matter, essentially, poor people’s lives matter.
It was not just the impact Ali had on refusing his call up to Vietnam, it is the impact he could have had, had he accepted it. Hauser (1996) wrote: “Ramsey Clark, then the attorney general of the United States, recalled ‘The government didn’t need Ali to fight the war, but they would have loved to put him in the service; get his picture in there; maybe give him a couple of stripes on his sleeve, and take him all over the world. Think of the power that would have had in Africa, Asia, and South America.’”
Had Ali accepted his call, it may have inspired others to join the army but his refusal encouraged others to do the likewise. Ezra (2009) wrote: “John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said: ‘I think many of the young people who came along and refused to be drafted, refused to take their stint, were deeply inspired by Muhammad Ali.’”
On the June 20, 1968, Ali was convicted for his refusal to be inducted into the army, making the front page of the New York Times. Martin Waldron’s article headlined: “Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison. U.S. Judge Also Fines the Boxer $10,000 for Refusing Induction”
The article states how Muhammad Ali was sentenced to the maximum prison sentence and given the maximum fine. The event itself was tense, the story going on to state how the courtroom was frequented by FBI agents, black Muslims and how an “all-white jury” took just 20 minutes to find Ali guilty of refusing induction.
After the conviction it was not just the newspapers in which Ali was vilified. As television was in period of transition between black and white and colour, Ali appeared on a British programme aired in 1968, where David Susskind, a respected liberal, berated Ali via satellite, stating: “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 of the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He’s a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
Ali did not go to prison. In 1970 his appeal was upheld in the Supreme Court, albeit on a technicality that the Louisville draft board should have specified its reasons for rejecting him as a conscientious objector. Therefore Ali’s conviction of draft evasion had been reversed and he had beaten the judicial system. His refusal to fight in Vietnam was finally vindicated.
Ali lost the best years of his career, which led to him fighting on far past his best and suffering severe head trauma and Parkinson’s disease. This ultimately led to his death. But Ali’s influence may have saved many more lives, even if it was at the cost of his own.
Muhammad Ali did not end the war in Vietnam, nor did he eradicate racism in America but what he did do was provide a voice, through the all elements of the media, for both the anti-war protesters and the civil rights movement. His unique position to combine both of these agendas changed America, inspiring countless people along the way.
The media worked both for and against Ali, with some publications criticising Ali, possibly to remain patriotic at time of war, whilst they also allowed him to address mass audiences in the hope that he could persuade them towards his cause.
Through his views and personal sacrifice Ali brought about a change in attitudes as to what the American people regarded as freedom. It was now more than just not being a slave, it was about true equality; for housing and jobs, freedom of expression religious or otherwise. He made people question war in general and the killing of innocent people in foreign countries, much of which still goes on today. And finally, he gave the people the belief that change could be achieved, even if it meant a fight with the American Government, who Ali took on and triumphed against.
MUHAMMAD ALI 1942 – 2016 THE GREATEST
Bernstein, Alina (2002). Sport, Media, Culture: Global and Local Dimensions. London: Routledge. 60.
Epps, Henry (2012). Great African-American Men in America history . n.p.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 24.
Ezra, Michael (2009). Muhammad Ali: The Making of an icon. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 140.
Ezra, Michael (2009). Muhammad Ali: The Making of an icon . Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 122.
Gilmore, Mikal. (2011). How Muhammad Ali Conquered Fear and Changed the World. Available: http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/how-muhammad-ali-conquered-fear-and-changed-the-world-20130205?page=5#ixzz3rHkbepRz . Last accessed 19/11/2015.
Hauser, Thomas (1996). Muhammad Ali in Perspective . New York: Collins Publishers. 21.
Lipsyte, Robert (1967). Clay Refuses Army Oath; Stripped of Boxing Crown, New York Times, April 29, 1967
Marqusee, Mike (2005). Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. 2nd ed. New York: Verso Books. 162.
Pusey, Allen. (February 2015). Feb. 20, 1967: Muhammad Ali’s appeal rejected by draft board. ABA Journal. 07470088 (1), 1.
Susskind, David. (2014) ‘The Trials of Muhammad Ali’ Independent Lens, Series 15, episode 18, PBS, 14 April
Waldron, Marin (1967). Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison, New York Times, June 20, 1967