Having the world heavyweight champion refuse the draft was a shot in the arm for the anti-war movement. Until Ali, no American celebrity had spoken out about Vietnam.

Carrie Giunta

The vietnam war killed in excess of two million Vietnamese people and claimed many hundreds of thousands of American lives. Muhammad Ali, newly crowned as heavyweight champion of the world, took on the US government in a fight against one of the most horrendous wars of the 20th century. Ali refused the military draft or any form of participation in the war, to the detriment of his career and leading to his eventual arrest.

Already an Olympic gold medal winner at age 20, Ali (then Cassius Clay) fought Sonny Liston in 1964 for the world heavyweight title. Boasting to reporters before the match, Ali predicted Liston would be defeated in eight rounds in his unforgettable I Am The Greatest speech.

Ali made history when the ferocious Liston failed to stand up at the start of the seventh round: “I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.”

No one would have predicted that by 1966 Ali would become history’s most famous draft resistor. He not only resisted the draft; he became the first celebrity to speak out against the war in Vietnam.

A new film by British filmmaker, Claire Lewins, I Am Ali, uses first hand accounts from family, close friends and Ali’s own personal journals and audio recordings to explore who Ali really is as a person and as a fighter.

But who is Ali politically? Who was Ali, the conscientious objector, symbol of black power and international anti-war figure that singly defined the draft resistance movement?

Round One: drafted

It was February 1966 when the Champ became eligible for the draft. Ali was classified at the highest level of eligibility, which was 1-A, fit for combat.

Opposition to the war up to that point was relatively weak. African-American students led the first protests against the disproportionate numbers of black soldiers being killed in Vietnam. Dissent was building slowly and draft resistance was unusual, to say the least.

News of Ali’s classification came to him while training in Miami. Bombarded by reporters and questions, Ali managed to retain his composure. Finally, when asked what he thought about the war in Vietnam, he replied with no hesitation: ‘Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.’

No one saw it coming. All at once Ali voiced his resistance to war and to racism in one resoundingly clear statement. There was no turning back for Ali after that.

At a press conference where he was expected to apologise, Ali waxed poetic: ‘Keep asking me, no matter how long on the war in Vietnam, I sing this song. I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietkong.’

By law, Ali had to prove sincerity in order to get a conscientious objector exemption. The right to refuse conscription was based on a religious belief not to kill. He had to prove he was opposed to all wars, and not just the Vietnam War.

There was doubt about Ali’s conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964. Ali insisted this was a religious membership and not a political position. The press was more than skeptical about Ali’s anti-war stance. He was accused of being afraid or a puppet of the ‘Black Muslims’.

Ali testified to the Kentucky appeal board, which ruled he was sincere in his religious reasons for abstaining from participating in all wars. The federal government rejected this, maintaining Ali had political, and not religious reasons for resisting the draft. Ali had lost round one of this fight.

Breaking the silence

Ali connected the struggle for freedom, justice and equality with the anti-war movement. He would not stand for hypocrisy:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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? No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slavemasters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end…I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.

He did, in fact, stand to lose a great deal – his title for one thing. Ali was prevented from earning a living at home since he lost his boxing license. He could not accept contracts overseas either because, although he posed no flight risk, the government seized his passport.

Civil rights activists, Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, believed Ali risked more than anyone who refused to go to war in Vietnam. Although many people refused to go to Vietnam and some went to jail, Carmichael felt: “No one risked or suffered like Muhammad Ali. I didn’t risk anything. I just told people not to go.”

Ali told people: “I say, damn the fights and damn all the money. A man’s got to stand up for what he believes, and I’m standing up for my people, even if I have to go to jail.”

Having the world heavyweight champion refuse the draft was a shot in the arm for the anti-war movement. Until Ali, no American celebrity had spoken out about Vietnam. Many people were paying attention to the war for the first time because of his example.

Martin Luther King broke his silence on Vietnam, in his speech at Riverside Church. King spoke about the tragedy of sending “extraordinarily high proportions” of the poor “relative to the rest of the population” to die in Vietnam, while in the US, black people were dying in cities across the country.

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

That year saw the first mass draft card burnings. The size and number of anti-war protests swelled. International demand for US withdrawal from Vietnam was increasing. Meanwhile, the cost of war soared.

US forces killed or injured on a weekly basis 1,000 Vietnamese non-combatants. 500,000 US troops were in Vietnam by the end of 1967, out of which, 100 per week died. The monthly bill for the war: $2 billion a month.

In Louisville, Kentucky, an all-white draft board made a unanimous decision to uphold Ali’s 1-A classification.

At his induction, demonstrators held a banner outside saying: Stay Home Muhammad Ali and placards read: Draft Beer-Not Ali.

Ali refused induction when his name was called. As he refused to step forward, he was warned: by refusing induction, he was committing a felony, which could get him five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. His name was called three times. Ali refused each time.

In a statement to the media, Ali said:

I have searched my conscience and I find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call.” I have two alternatives: either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative. And that alternative is justice.

Clay v the United States

In the court case, Clay v the United States, Ali was indicted and released on $5,000 bail, on condition he did not leave the US. That same day, he was stripped of his boxing license and his title.

At his conviction the following month, the court ruled Ali’s joining the Nation of Islam was a political and not just a religious affiliation. He received the maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for refusing induction. His passport was confiscated.

Comedian, George Carlin had a routine about the government’s rejection of Ali’s claim to be a conscientious objector:

He said, ‘No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ’em up, but I don’t want to kill ’em.’ And the government said, ‘Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ’em up.’

The case went to the Supreme Court, where the court decided Ali was sincere in opposing the Vietnam War based on religious beliefs, but still specified Ali did not oppose all wars. The conviction was overturned on grounds that the federal government advised the draft board wrongly.

The Supreme Court reversed Ali’s conviction on 28 June 1971. The government dropped all criminal charges against him. His passport was returned. And Ali returned to boxing.

Politics v Boxing

What makes Ali the greatest conscientious objector?

The US government was faced with the fear that Ali would inspire thousands to resist the draft and oppose the war.

Ali the conscientious objector did just that: 22,000 men were indicted for draft law violations by the time the war ended. 50,000 went abroad to escape the draft. More applications for conscientious objector status were submitted to local draft boards during the Vietnam War than in the First and Second World Wars combined. By 1970, this exceeded 100,000 applications.

The government certainly did consider Ali a threat. His name made its way onto the US House of Representatives List of Radical and Revolutionary Speakers. The FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, had a file on Ali, as it did on activist-singer Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson (the first African-American in major league baseball) and Martin Luther King.

Hoover’s counter-intelligence programme, COINTELPRO, came into being in August 1967. COINTELPRO’s covert operations used illegal methods to subvert nearly everyone who criticised the Vietnam War.

Secret papers published last year reveal the National Security Agency phone-tapped both Ali and King.

The NSA’s Operation Minaret monitored many prominent figures known to be critical of the war. Along with Ali and King, Whitney Young of the National Urban League and Stokely Carmichael were tracked by the NSA between 1967 and 1973.

Some would argue Ali still holds the same power today. Dave Zirin warns there are those who want to destroy Ali’s name because: “As war and resistance continue, the faint glow of what Ali actually represented remains a threat.”

In the end, the government was more afraid of the threatening prospect of an Ali conviction than of letting him get away with resisting the draft. Richard Nixon appointee Warren Burger, supreme court chief justice for Ali’s trial, rationalised the favourable result for Ali as being: ‘a good lift for black people.’ It’s closer to the truth to say the government acquiesced because the public reaction to an Ali conviction would have been unimaginable and no less than a riot.

Ali paved the way for future sport stars to be political. Conventional wisdom tells us sport and politics do not mix. Perhaps it’s the friction between the two that creates a force capable of bursting the barriers.

Ali didn’t mix politics with boxing. He dynamited the dam constructed to separate sport from politics.

After retiring in 1981, he stayed political and boxing was no longer an important part of Ali’s life. He had given up boxing, but continued to fight: “Now my life is starting, fighting injustice, racism, poverty. Using this face that the world knows from fame and going out representing truth and helping certain causes.”

I Am Ali will be in cinemas 28 November and is available now on demand and digital download.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

13 May 2015

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