Muhammad Ali Explains Why He Refused to Fight in Vietnam: “My Conscience Won’t Let Me Go Shoot My Brother… for Big Powerful America” (1970)

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.

Related Content: 

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

The Rules of 100 Sports Clearly Explained in Short Videos: Baseball, Football, Jai Alai, Sumo Wrestling, Cricket, Pétanque & Much More

When you get down to it, every sport is its rules. This leaves aside great historical weight and cultural associations, granted, but if you don’t know a sport’s rules, not only can you not play it, you can’t appreciate it (the many childhood afternoons I thrilled to televised 49ers games without having any idea what was happening on the field notwithstanding). What’s worse, you can’t discuss it. “There is a shared knowledge of sports in America that is unlike our shared knowledge of anything else,” as Chuck Klosterman once put it. “Whenever I have to hang out with someone I’ve never met before, I always find myself secretly thinking, ‘I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports. I hope this dude knows about sports.'”

Klosterman is a cultural critic, a position not at odds with his sports fanaticism, and he surely knows that his observation holds well beyond the U.S.: just consider how deeply so much of the world is invested in football. Despite its relative simplicity, many Americans never quite grasped the workings of what we call soccer. But thanks to a Youtuber called Ninh Ly, we can learn in just over four minutes.

Ly’s explanation of association football/soccer is just one of nearly 100 such videos on his channel, each of which clearly and concisely lays out the rules of a different sport. An American who watches it immediately becomes not just able to understand a game, but prepared to engage with the cultures of football-enthusiast countries from Mexico to Malaysia, Turkey to Thailand.

Though British, Ly just as cogently explains sports from the United States, even the relatively complicated ones: basketball, for instance, or what most of the world calls American football (as well as its arena, Canadian, and twice-failed XFL variants), a game whose devoted fans include no less acclaimed-in-Europe an American novelist than than Paul Auster. Previously on Open Culture, we featured Auster’s correspondence with J.M. Coetzee on the subject of sports, wherein the former probes his own enthusiasm for football, and the latter his own enthusiasm for cricket. “If I look into my own heart and ask why, in the twilight of my days, I am still — sometimes — prepared to spend hours watching cricket on television,” writes Coetzee, “I must report that, however absurdly, however wistfully, I continue to look out for moments of heroism, moments of nobility.”

Anyone can enjoy such moments when and where they come, but only if they know the rules of cricket in the first place. Ly has, of course, made a cricket explainer, which in four minutes fully elucidates a sport as obscure to some as it is beloved of others. He’s also covered much more specialized sports, including fencing, curling, pickleball, jai alai, axe throwing, and sumo wrestling. (Unable to “ignore the overwhelming demand,” he’s even explained the rules of quidditch, a game adapted from the Harry Potter books.) After a couple of hours with his playlist (embedded below), you’ll come away ready to ascend to a new plane of appreciation for sportsmanship in all its various manifestations. If you’re anything like me, you’ll then revisit your earliest education in these subjects: Sports Cartoons.

Related Content:

Jack Kerouac Was a Secret, Obsessive Fan of Fantasy Baseball

Albert Camus’ Lessons Learned from Playing Goalie: “What I Know Most Surely about Morality and Obligations, I Owe to Football”

Monty Python’s Philosopher’s Football Match: The Epic Showdown Between the Greeks & Germans (1972)

Read and Hear Famous Writers (and Armchair Sportsmen) J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster’s Correspondence

Jorge Luis Borges: “Soccer is Popular Because Stupidity is Popular”

The Weird World of Vintage Sports

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

When Jack Johnson, the First Black Heavyweight Champion, Defeated Jim Jeffries & the Footage Was Banned Around the World (1910)

“Being born Black in America… we all know how that goes….” 

                        —Miles Davis, liner notes for A Tribute to Jack Johnson

When Muhammad Ali saw James Earl Jones play a fictionalized Jack Johnson on Broadway in Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Great White Hope in 1968, he reportedly exclaimed, “You just change the time, date and the details and it’s about me!” In Johnson’s time, however, most white heavyweight fighters flat-out refused to fight Black boxers. Heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries swore he would retire “when there were no white men left to fight.” He left the sport in 1905, refusing to fight Johnson even after Johnson had knocked his younger brother out in 1902 and taunted him from the ring, saying, “I can whip you, too.”

After Jeffries retired undefeated, the next heavyweight world champion, Tommy Burns, agreed to fight Johnson in 1908 and lost when police stopped the fight. Two years later, lured out of retirement by the press and a $40,000 purse, Jeffries finally agreed to fight Johnson, who was then the heavyweight champion of the world. By that time, the bout had been framed as an existential racial crisis. Johnson was “the white man’s despair” and his challenger “The Great White Hope.” Jeffries played the part, saying, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

Novelist Jack London dreamed of a magical scenario in which the full force of European history would inhabit Jeffries’ body. He “would surely win” because he had “30 centuries of tradition behind him — all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests, and, whether he knows it or not, Bunker Hill and Thermopylae and Hastings and Agincourt.” Bluster and mythmaking do not win boxing matches. Out of shape and outclassed in the ring, Jeffries lost in 15 rounds in front of 22,000 fans on July 4, 1910, in what was known as the “Fight of the Century.” Johnson walked away with $117,000 and held the title for another five years.

Johnson’s victory was a triumph for African Americans, who staged parades and celebrations, and a profound defeat for “white boxing fans who hated seeing a black man sit atop the sport,” notes a Johnson biography. They took out their rage in “race riots” that evening, attacking Black people in cities around the country as collective punishment for a perceived collective humiliation. Hundreds of people were injured and around 20 killed. The videos above from Vox and Black History in Two Minutes (featuring Henry Louis Gates Jr.) tell the story.

White boxing fans’ rage had been building since the Burns fight, Vox explains, stoked by the newest form of mass media, commercial motion pictures, which came of age at the same time as professional boxing. Film reels of prizefights circulated the country at the turn of the century, and paying audiences cheered their heroes on the screen: “Boxing, going back centuries, has been wrapped up in themes of identity and pride.” Boxers represented their community, their nationality, their race. Spectators “imagined,” says American University historian Theresa Runstedtler, “that boxers in the ring, particularly for interracial fights, were almost engaged in this kind of ‘Darwinian struggle’” for dominance.

As a result of the violence on July 4, authorities attempted to ban film of the Johnson vs. Jeffries fight, and “police were instructed to break up screening events.” The ostensible reason was that the film caused “rioting,” as though the perpetrators could not themselves be held responsible, and as if the film were itself incendiary. But what it showed, the Black press of the time pointed out, was nothing more or less than a fair fight, something Jeffries and boxing legend John L. Sullivan immediately conceded in the press afterward. (“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” said Jeffries.)

In truth, “white authorities were worried,” says Runstedtler, “about the symbolic implications…. They worried that any demonstration of Black victory and any demonstration of white weakness or defeat would undercut the narratives of white supremacy, not just in the United States,” but also in colonies abroad. The film had to be banned worldwide, but the fight to suppress it only pushed it underground where it proliferated. Finally, in 1912, Congress banned the distribution of all prize-fight films, with Southern members of Congress “especially interested in the proposed law,” it was reported, “because of the race feeling stirred up by the exhibition of the Jeffries-Johnson moving pictures.”

Aside from the extremely fragile reaction to a boxing film, what might strike us now about the violence and the controversy surrounding the screenings is the vehemence of racist invective among many commentators, who mostly followed London’s lead in openly extolling white supremacy. This was not at all unusual for the time. The narrative was woven into the fight before it began. And when the “Great White Hope” went down, he did not do so as an individual contender, standing or falling on his own merit. The fight’s announcer, in audio paired with the fight reel above, pronounced him “humiliated, beaten, a betrayer of his race.”

Related Content:  

“Muhammad Ali, This Is Your Life!”: Celebrate Ali’s Life & Times with This Touching 1978 TV Tribute

Muhammad Ali Gives a Dramatic Reading of His Poem on the Attica Prison Uprising

Ernest Hemingway’s Delusional Adventures in Boxing: “My Writing is Nothing, My Boxing is Everything.”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Werner Herzog Discovers the Ecstasy of Skateboarding: “That’s Kind of My People”

If Werner Herzog has ever stood atop a skateboard, cinema seems not to have recorded it. But when asked by online skateboarding magazine Jenkem to discuss the sport and/or lifestyle, he did so with characteristically little reservation. “I’m not familiar with the scene of skateboarding,” he admits in the video interview above. “At the same time, I had the feeling, yes, that’s kind of my people.” Fans will make the connection between skateboarding videos and the Bavarian filmmaker’s early documentary The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, on champion ski jumper Walter Steiner, even before a clip of it appears.

In fact Herzog himself, as revealed in the autobiographical short Portrait Werner Herzog, only turned filmmaker after shelving his own dreams of ski-jumping. The experience must have taught him viscerally, through those parts of the body that don’t forget, what it means to make countless attempts resulting in countless failures — with a better failure here and there, and at some distant, ecstatic moment, perhaps a success.

Viewed at great enough length, the kind of skateboarder who attempts a trick on video dozens, even hundreds of times, before landing it could well be a character from one of Herzog’s own films, especially his documentaries about men unable to stop putting themselves in harm’s way in the name of their fixations.

“So many failures,” marvels Herzog as he watches one such video. “That’s astonishing.” It certainly “doesn’t do good to his pelvis, nor to his elbows,” Herzog adds, but such is the price of ecstasy. For him, the obscurity of the vast majority of skateboarders only compounds the sacredness of their practice. This as opposed to the David Blaines of the world, whose physical feats “are meant only for his own publicity, and for shining out in the media. Skateboard kids are not out for the media. They do it for the joy of it, and for the fun of it.” If Herzog were to pay cinematic tribute to these kids, surely he would make similar observations though voiceover narration. As for his instinct of how to fill out the rest of the soundtrack, “What comes to mind first and foremost would be Russian Orthodox church choirs.”

Related Content:

Werner Herzog Offers 24 Pieces of Filmmaking and Life Advice

Tony Hawk & Architectural Historian Iain Borden Tell the Story of How Skateboarding Found a New Use for Cities & Architecture

“Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better”: How Samuel Beckett Created the Unlikely Mantra That Inspires Entrepreneurs Today

Portrait Werner Herzog: The Director’s Autobiographical Short Film from 1986

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton Go Toe to Toe (Almost) in a Hilarious Boxing Scene Mash Up from Their Classic Silent Films

Coke or Pepsi?

Boxers or briefs?

Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton?

A difficult choice that usually boils down to personal taste…

In the case of the two silent screen greats, they evinced different personalities, but both were possessed of physical grace, a tremendous work ethic, and the ability to make audiences root for the little guy.

Their enduring influence on physical comedy is evident in the boxing scene mash up above, which pulls from Keaton’s star turn in 1926’s Battling Butler and Chaplin’s widely celebrated City Lights from 1931.

Even cut up and spliced back together in alternating shots, it’s a master class on building anticipation, defying expectations, and the humor of repetition.

Both films’ plots hinge on a mild fellow going to extraordinary lengths to prove himself worthy of the girl he loves.

Chaplin, besotted with a blind flower-seller, is drawn into the ring by the prospect of prize money, which he would use to cover her unpaid rent.

His opponent is played by Hank Mann, the brains behind the Keystone Cops period who went on to work with Jerry Lewis.

The pas de trois between the ref and the two boxers represents the pinnacle of Chaplin’s long affinity for the sport, following 1914’s Keystone short, The Knockout and 1915’s The Champion.

Battling Butler is built on a case of deliberately mistaken identity, after Keaton’s milquetoast rich boy impresses his working class sweetheart’s family by allowing them to think he is a famous boxer whose name he incidentally shares.

The fight scenes were filmed in LA’s brand new Olympic Auditorium, aka the Punch Palace, which went on to serve as a location for the more recent boxing classics Rocky (1976) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).

The editor who thought to score this mashup to Mariachi Internacional’s cover of Zorba El Griego is certainly a contender in their own right, but readers, what we really want to know is in this championship round between Chaplin and Keaton, who would you declare the winner?

Related Content: 

Discover the Cinematic & Comedic Genius of Charlie Chaplin with 60+ Free Movies Online

What Would the World of Charlie Chaplin Look Like in Color?: Watch a Colorfully Restored Version of A Night at the Show (1915)

A Supercut of Buster Keaton’s Most Amazing Stunts

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Tony Hawk & Architectural Historian Iain Borden Tell the Story of How Skateboarding Found a New Use for Cities & Architecture

Wouldn’t we enjoy seeing our cities like an architectural historian, in command of deep knowledge about the technology, ideology, and aesthetics of the buildings we pass by every day? For most of us, this would hugely enrich our experience of the urban environment. But then so, less obviously, would seeing our cities like a skateboarder, in command of deep knowledge about how to glide, jump, and bounce along the streets, the buildings, and all the myriad pieces of infrastructure as a surfer rides the waves. The architectural historian learns the city with his mind; the skater learns the city, no less painstakingly, with his body.

The Vox video above brings mind and body come together in the persons of Iain Borden, author of Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History, and Tony Hawk, to whom even those wholly ignorant of skateboarding need no introduction. Their complementary interviews reveal the history of modern skateboarding through the sport’s “legendary spots”: public-school campuses, abandoned swimming pools, dry drainage ditches, forgotten sections of concrete pipe. In the main this selection reflects the highly suburbanized 1970s in which skateboards first came to popularity in the United States. But at its outer limits, such as the Mt. Baldy pipeline in northern California, it also shows how far skaters will go in search of the ideal place to ride.

Though purpose-build skate parks do exist (their numbers kept low by formidable insurance challenges), serious skaters prefer spaces not expressly designed for skating. This is thanks in large part to the innovations of a skater with less wider-world name recognition than Hawk, but no less influence within the sport: Natas Kaupas. Hawk remembers the thoughts triggered by footage of the young Kaupas skating masterfully through his neighborhood in the 1987 film Wheels of Fire: “Wow, you can skate curbs like that? You can skate benches? You can skate fire hydrants? The whole world is a skate park now.” Suddenly, Borden adds, “you didn’t need to be in California, or in the Arizona desert, or in Florida anymore. You could be anywhere.”

Reviewing Borden’s Skateboarding and the City, Jack Layton in Urban Studies highlights its history of “how the assemblage of materials that makes up cities has been – in countless ways – re-imagined by the skateboarder to create acceleration, rotation, friction and flow.” It’s easy to forget, Layton writes, that “along with facilitating commerce, transport and habitation, cities can be spaces that facilitate play, exhilaration and pleasure.” Despite often having been regarded as public nuisances, skateboarders are “a constant reminder that our cities are creative and rich places,” says Borden. With the exception of the skate parks secretly constructed in hidden urban spaces across the world, skaters, of course, don’t build the city — but they do show us some of its untapped potential.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Michael Jordan’s “The Last Dance” and Hero Worship: A Pretty Much Pop Culture Podcast Discussion (#50)

The 10-part ESPN documentary dissecting Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ six championships has provided some much needed sports during the pandemic, roping in even sports haters with a mix of game highlights and behind-the-scenes drama.

Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer are joined by Seth from The Partially Examined Life to interrogate the event: Was it actually worth 10 hours of our time? Did its “time-jumping” structure work? Its its treatment of Jordan really “hagiography” sanctifying the man, or is the picture of grudge-holding ultra-competitiveness actually pretty repulsive? Why was he like that? Why are sports amenable to creating cultural icons out of its heroes in a way that, say, physics isn’t? Are we going to see many more of these long-form treatments of sports heroes?

For more discussion, here are some articles we looked at:

If you enjoyed this, check out our episode #25 with sportscaster Dave Revsine.

Learn more at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Stream All 18 Hours of Ken Burns’ Baseball for Free on What Would Have Been Opening Day

Baseball season won’t start today, on what would have been Open Day. So here’s your next best bet. As Sam Barsanti writes at AV Club, “PBS and the world’s preeminent director of extremely watchable and extremely long documentaries have a special treat: The entirety of Ken Burns’ Baseball—over 18 hours—is now available to stream for free on the PBS website and all of its related apps.”

It’s no coincidence that Burns’ documentary becomes free during COVID-19. On Twitter, Burns adds: “With events canceled & so much closed, I asked @PBS to stream BASEBALL for free so we can participate in the national pastime together. Watch at the link below or on any streaming device. And please look out for those with greater needs. Play ball.”

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