In April of 1967, Muhammad Ali arrived at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Texas. “Standing beside twenty-five other nerve-racked young men called to the draft,” writes David Remnick at The New Yorker, Ali “refused to respond to the call of ‘Cassius Clay!’” Offered the choice of going to Vietnam or to jail, he chose the latter “and was sentenced to five years in prison and released on bail.” Ali lost his title, his boxing license, his passport, and — as far as he knew at the time — his career. He was newly married with his first child on the way.
When Ali refused to go to Vietnam, he was “already one of America’s greatest heavyweights ever,” notes USA Today. “He’d won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in Rome when he was just 18 and four years later, against all odds, defeated Sonny Liston to win his first title as world champion.” Ali, it seemed, could do no wrong, as long as he agreed to play a role that made Americans comfortable. He refused to do that too, becoming a Muslim in 1961, changing his name in 1964, and speaking out in his inimitable style against racism and American imperialism.
Ali stood on principle as a conscientious objector at a time when resisting the Vietnam War made him extremely unpopular. Sports Illustrated called him “another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion” and pronounced that “his views of Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal.” Television host David Susskind called him “a disgrace to his country” and even Jackie Robinson felt Ali was “hurting… the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam.”
Robinson gave voice to a sentiment one hears often from critics of politically outspoken athletes: “Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.” But the country also gave Ali the opportunity to take his case to the Supreme Court, as his lawyer told Howard Cosell in the ABC news segment at the top. “Ali had no intention of fleeing to Canada,” DeNeen L. Brown writes at The Washington Post, “but he also had no intention of serving in the Army.”
Ali strung together a living giving speaking engagements at anti-war events around the country for the next few years as he fought the verdict. It was hardly the living he’d made as champion. But “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,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me [the N word], 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.”
Ali remained prominently in the public eye throughout his appeal. He had become a “fixture on the TV talk show circuit in the precable days of the 1960s and ‘70s,” writes Stephen Battaglio in a LA Times review of the recent documentary Ali & Cavett. He remained so during his hiatus from boxing thanks in no small part to Dick Cavett, who had Ali on frequently for everything from “serious discussions of race relations in the U.S. to playful confrontations aimed at promoting fights.” Cavett’s show “provided a comfort zone for Ali, especially before he became a beloved figure.” And it gave Ali a forum to counter public slander. In the clip above from 1970, he talks about how his sacrifices made him a credible role model for troubled young people.
He seems at first to compare himself to early American pioneers, Japanese kamikaze pilots, and the first astronauts when Cavett asks him about the possibility of going to jail, but his point is that he thinks he’s paying a small price compared to what others have given up for progress — “We’ve been in jail 400 years,” he says. “The system is built on war.” The following year, the Supreme Court would dismiss the case against him, swayed by the argument that Ali opposed all war, not just the war in Vietnam. He saw Cavett as a worthy sparring partner, helping the late-night host earn a place on Nixon’s list of enemies. It would become a place of honor in the coming years as Ali won back his career, his reputation, and his title in the “Rumble in the Jungle” four years later, and the Vietnam War became a cause for national shame.
Muhammad Ali Gives a Dramatic Reading of His Poem on the Attica Prison Uprising
“Muhammad Ali, This Is Your Life!”: Celebrate Ali’s Life & Times with This Touching 1978 TV Tribute
When Jack Johnson, the First Black Heavyweight Champion, Defeated Jim Jeffries & the Footage Was Banned Around the World (1910)
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Willie Dixon, the writer of 100’s of blues classics recorded by thousands of white musicans including the Rolling Stones refused to join up for the exact same reasons Ali refused. Dixon did 10 months in prison. I imagine he felt the same as Ali “putting a black man in prison don’t mean much…we’ve been in prison for four hundred years”
Hall of Fame pitcher and WW2 vet Bob Feller said it best: “Here’s a guy that changed his name and religion to avoid the draft”
More recent scholarship has shown another reason…Ali was afraid that Elijah Muhammad would have him killed if he submitted to the draft, especially if he gave in after first refusing. So the die was cast.
He made those changes years before he was drafted. Bob Feller was a pretty racist guy in his own right.
In December 1979 on ABC News in an airport interview, Muhammad Ali stated he was willing to go fight with his Afghani brothers against the Soviet incursion to Afghanistan. When you take that statement with the statements above, he clearly lied about his opposition to all war to avoid military service. My brother and I watched the same telecast from our separate homes. We called each other to see if the other had seen Ali state he was willing to fight for the Afghanis. As the son of a Vietnam vet Infantry commander with a cousin who was an infantryman for 13 months in Vietnam, neither of whom wanted to be there, I am sickened by Ali and all the misguided fools who think he was a principled man. He was unprincipled, lying, perjurious scoundrel. BTW, the Supreme Court opinion focused on the failure of the administrative board to clearly state in the record that he failed the third part of the test that he opposed all wars. The Supreme Court thus found the case was not proven.