Muhammad Ali

‘My conscience won’t let me’: What Muhammad Ali teaches us today

Some of Muhammad Ali’s greatest battles were fought within the realm of mythology. There was the time Ali faced off (in a comic book) against the son of Krypton, Superman. And who could forget his “battle” with nature, which he described with compelling wit as a precursor to his fight with George Foreman:

I have wrastled with a alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, throwed thunder in jail. That’s bad! Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.

At the height of his powers, Ali’s mythos was as impenetrable as his boxing record. It’s hard to imagine that someone so deft of foot and wit could contain something even more indomitable, but that was Ali’s true gift. His conviction was undeniable, even in the midst of his greatest battle, one that wasn’t imaginary, but ideological.

On April 28, 1967, 55 years ago this week, Ali refused to be drafted into the United States Army to fight in the Vietnam War. His Muslim faith and his anti-war commentary came to a head when he arrived in Houston for his scheduled induction. He refused to step forward when his name was called and was told that he would be arrested if he continued to refuse. A man known for his trademark shuffle stood firm that day.

“It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted,” he offered in a statement.

Ali was immediately stripped of his world heavyweight championship, and a few months later, on June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion, fined $10,000, and sentenced to five years in prison. He was also banned from boxing for three years. The punishment would rob him of his boxing prime, but what he forfeited in terms of his career, he gained in conscience and celebrity. 

Those two terms might seem contradictory, especially considering the allure of capitalism. That was the power of Ali, though – even in a room full of luminaries, his conscience was the center of attention. Take the “Ali Summit,” for example, which included sports legends such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The group met in Cleveland a few weeks before Ali’s conviction in an effort to get him to soften his anti-war stance. When he wouldn’t, Ali’s fellow athletes stood with him.

Mirrorpix/Newscom/FileA “Don’t send Muhammad Ali to Vietnam” demonstration organized by Muhammad Zafreen of the Pakistan League takes place in London on April 10, 1967. Ali had spoken out about his conscientious objections to the Vietnam War long before he refused to be drafted into the Army on April 28, 1967.

“I envy Muhammad Ali. He faces a possible five years in jail and he has been stripped of his heavyweight championship, but I still envy him,” Mr. Russell said. “He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

Mr. Russell’s words were prescient, not just for that time, but for the present age. Partisan politics and the pandemic have torn the United States apart. What might redeem us all is unrepentant and conscious faith. Some might have considered Ali unpatriotic, but his love for people of all walks of life was undeniable. As a result, his stance didn’t just exalt him beyond celebrity – it ultimately made him the people’s champion.

When he declared, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” the anti-war sentiment became a rallying cry for Black people. A year before his rebuke of the military, he offered this pointed take on Vietnam:

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 [racial epithet], 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.

Protesters took Ali’s sentiment and offered this message: “No Vietnamese ever called me [racial epithet].” The commentary was edgy and effective as it made its way across college campuses, as did Ali himself. In October 1970, he finally secured a boxing license to take on Jerry Quarry, and in June of 1971, his original conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. 

Conviction – a word that threatened to derail Ali’s career actually showed us the heart of “The Greatest.”

Anti-war sentiments are still relevant, particularly with the world’s eye on Ukraine, and, in less-reported news, a U.S. military proposal to recruit college athletes under consideration. 

As the world around us seems to be falling apart, Ali’s legendary stance continues to ring loud as a call for not only conscience, but courage.

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