It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a year since the great Muhammad Ali left this world. Many of us who only knew Ali as the Parkinson’s-addled, withered, and largely silent shadow of his formerly braggadocious, bold, and defiant self.
It’s an image more ripe for adoration: “Look at the great hero now suffering, yet continuing to sign autographs and mime for photos!”
“He was once the Greatest, now he’s punching his damndest against an unbeatable opponent,” the narrative went.
Since Late Muhammad Ali serves as an inspirational figure to all, it’s tempting to sweep controversial elements of the former Cassius Clay’s history under the rug. This isn’t a thorough lifting of the rug to see what’s there, but rather, in this environment where Colin Kaepernick is public enemy No. 1, a reminder of a very important fact about Muhammad Ali: He was a conscious objector to the Vietnam War, refusing the draft. As such, he was labeled “the most hated man in America.”
Of course, (most agree) Ali’s religiously based objection to an unjust war that needlessly sent thousands of young American’s to the slaughter is entirely commendable in the full view of history. But it certainly wasn’t at the time.
Let’s step back in time to April 28, 1967, some 50 years ago: Muhammad Ali stood before a bench of uniformed military induction officials inside Houston, Texas’s Military Entrance Processing Station.
When his name was called, Ali refused to step forward. The refusal came on the heels of three appeals to have his draft status changed, owing to his professed non-violent Muslim faith and allegiance to the Nation of Islam, to which he converted in 1964.
This eventually led to his arrest. Accordingly, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his license. He was stripped of his world heavyweight title. Ali was a persona non grata in his profession of choice.
And beyond mere opposition to the war in Vietnam and refusal to be drafted, Ali pulled back the curtain on another issue plenty in America were trying to ignore: the black struggle for Civil Rights in the United States.
“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?” Ali asked, a week before his arrest.
“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.”
In June of 1967, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for his refusal. He was also slapped with a $10,000 fine for draft evasion.
He didn’t fight again until October of 1970, when he beat Jerry Quarry (his license was grudgingly reinstated while the case was appealed). The fighter’s appeal eventually made it to the Supreme Court in June of 1971. The court overturned his conviction.
As a boxer, Ali was robbed of most of his 25th year, all of his 26th year, all of his 27th year, and most of his 28th year. His trainer, Angelo Dundee said the suspension cost Ali “the best years of his life.”
He said further that although Ali continued to win, he was never the same fighter. He would lose his first fight as a professional, the Fight of the Century, to Joe Frazier in March of 1971. Frazier triumphed in a 15-round decision.
So while Ali eventually moved away from the racial separatist ideas of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, it’s important to remember he never disavowed or doubted his conscientious objection and all that it represented. We owe it to the Greatest to remember this as well and honor his memory by doing the same.