Remembering Muhammad Ali’s bold stance 50 years after he refused to go to war
BY MICHAEL K. BOHN
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
“I’m the greatest! I’m the greatest!” Cassius Clay shouted from the center of the ring. The 22-year-old boxer danced about the canvas as the defeated heavyweight champion of the world, Sonny Liston, slumped on his corner stool.
Liston had just refused to answer the bell at the start of Round 7 of their February 1964 title bout in Miami.
The referee raised Clay’s right fist, and the winner by a TKO continued shouting, “I’m the king of the world!”
The boxing press and many knowledgeable fans were familiar with Clay’s bombast and hyperbole, but the new champion introduced another facet of his life to the news media the following day.
A new name
In Miami’s Convention Hall, Clay began to speak of religion and social values.
Moreover, he talked of the media’s expectations of a heavyweight champion, and, to make his point, he cited practices followed by Black Muslims, formally the Nation of Islam, which gave him direction. “I know where I’m going … I’m free to be what I want.”
“Are you a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?” a reporter asked.
“Card-carrying, what does that mean?” Clay asked. “I believe in Allah and in peace. … I’m not a Christian anymore.”
Nine days after the Liston fight, Clay told reporters in New York he was changing his name to Cassius X Clay, with the “X” representing his missing African identity. That same day, the head of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, bestowed a wholly new name on Clay — Muhammad Ali.
April 28, 1967
The public and the national news media seemed OK with Clay’s public brashness, but his name change and association with the Black Muslims didn’t sit well.
Author and journalist George Plimpton commented on the public reaction years later, according to Howard Bingham and Max Wallace in their 2000 book, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.”
“People seemed to believe this man was a threat to America’s values because of his affiliation with the Muslims,” Plimpton said, “which was seen as a racist organization.”
However, many years before Ali’s 2016 death, American had grown to view him as one the country’s greatest sports heroes. Yet his name change in 1964 paled in comparison to his actions three years later — his refusal to enter the U.S. armed forces’ draft on April 28, 1967, 50 years ago this week.
His draft score
In 1962, the Louisville, Kentucky draft board classified him 1-A — available for the draft. Clay took the draft’s pre-induction exam on Jan. 24, 1964, a month before the Liston fight.
He easily passed the physical exam, but his score on the mental aptitude test put him in the 16th percentile of all test-takers; the military required a score of 30 for induction.
The Selective Service retested him in mid-March to ensure he had not deliberately failed the first time, but he scored the same. That led to his reclassification as 1-Y — unfit for military duty.
Liston No. 2
In September 1964, Liston and Ali agreed to a rematch on Nov. 16, 1964.
Three days before the bout, Ali was staggered by an incarcerated inguinal hernia. Surgeons quickly repaired it, and Sports Illustrated later quoted one of the doctors: “It was such a marvelously developed stomach, I hated to slice it up.” The promoter rescheduled the fight for May 25, 1965 in Boston.
As the rematch date approached, the Massachusetts Boxing Commission pulled its sanction of the fight, citing possible links between Liston’s management group and the mob.
Authorities in Lewiston, Maine, offered to host the bout in a youth hockey center, St. Dominic’s Arena.
Midway through the first round, Liston lunged forward with a left, but Ali snapped his head back, and, in a blur, threw a short right to Liston’s temple. The force of the blow lifted Liston off his lead foot and he collapsed to the canvas on his back, rolled over to his stomach, tried to get up on one knee and then fell onto his back again.
Liston got up and started fighting again, but referee Jersey Joe Walcott got in between them and raised Ali’s left glove. Spectators booed and shouted, “Fix! Fix!” Ali’s right to Liston’s head became known as the “phantom punch.”
In the same month as the second Ali-Liston fight, the U.S. Selective Service lowered the minimum score on the draft entrance exam from the 30th percentile to the 15th. Ali had scored 16, so his draft board immediately reclassified him 1-A, eligible for service, on Feb. 17, 1966.
Ali’s response was widely reported: “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” A month later, Ali asked for an exemption from his Louisville draft board on religious grounds, but the authorities denied the request and Ali’s subsequent appeal.
Bouts in Europe
Struggling to find fight venues in the United States, Ali’s team scheduled three bouts in Europe, May through September 1966. Ali beat in quick succession Henry Cooper, Brian London, and Karl Mildenberger.
Ali had returned to the States before the Mildenberger fight to appear at a special hearing to consider his continuing legal fight against his draft induction. In late August, retired judge Lawrence Grauman surprisingly ruled in favor of Ali.
Grauman, according to Tom Hauser, said Ali was “of good character, morals and integrity, and sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form.”
However, the U.S. Department of Justice overruled Grauman, based on the FBI assessment that Ali’s objection to war arose from political and racial grounds.
But Ali kept fighting through the rest on 1966 and early 1967.
Yet the draft issue loomed in the background. Eight days before the Folley fight, Ali had received the traditional draft induction letter from the U.S. president that began with “Greetings,” and directed him to report for induction on April 28 in Houston.
Ali’s stance regarding the Vietnam War was neither isolated nor without context. Martin Luther King, Jr. denounced the war on April 4 in a speech at New York’s Riverside Baptist Church and called upon Negros and “all White people of goodwill” to boycott the war and become conscientious objectors to military service. Ten days later, 100,000 people gathered in New York’s Central Park to protest the war.
Reported to Houston
Ali reported to the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston at 8 a.m.; 45 other young men joined him. The news media created a small circus outside the building and peppered Ali with questions as he walked inside.
Physical exams, interviews and briefings took all morning, and the staff gave the inductees box lunches at noon.
The group assembled an hour later in a large room accompanied by a contingent of FBI agents, and LT Steven Dunkley read a prepared statement. He then instructed each man to step forward when he called his name and his service assignment.
“Jason Adams, Army.” Adams duly stepped forward.
This went on until Dunkley reached Ali. “Cassius Clay, Army.” Ali did not move. Dunkley repeated the order. Nothing.
Another officer took Ali into a separate room to counsel him on the consequences of his action — five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Stands his ground
Back in the assembly room, Ali refused again. Finally, Dunkley asked him to provide a written statement of his decision. According to Bingham and Wallace, Ali wrote that he refused induction “because I claim to be exempt as a minister of the religion of Islam.”
Ali left the assembly room and approached the news media. He handed out a prepared, four-page statement that included his prediction of his ultimate fate: “In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.”
Reaction to Ali’s action throughout the nation was swift. A New York Times editorial the next day captured the predominate reaction by the news media: “Citizens cannot pick and choose which wars they wish to fight any more than they can pick and choose which laws they wish to obey.”
On the other hand, several widely respected Black athletes met with Ali in Cleveland on June 4 and voiced their support of him to the press. The group included NFL great Jim Brown, Celtics center Bill Russell, and UCLA basketball player Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended Ali’s boxing license, and other American jurisdictions followed suit. He was no longer the heavyweight champion.
Ten days after Ali refused to step forward, a federal grand jury in Houston indicted him for breaking the draft laws. His trial began on June 19, 1967, in federal district court, and a jury convicted him the following day. Judge Joe Ingraham sentenced Ali to five years in prison and fined him $10,000.
While his conviction appeal wound through the federal court system, Ali attempted to pay his lawyer fees by giving lectures at colleges and entering into business deals, including a restaurant chain called “Champburger.”
As his exile stretched into 1970, increasing sentiment in America against the Vietnam War began to recast Ali as an underdog fighting the system rather than a lawbreaker.
Two big fights
Muhammad Ali reached two major milestones in his life during the spring of 1971 — a heavyweight championship fight with the reigning champ, Joe Frazier, and a U.S. Supreme Court hearing of his draft-refusal case.
During Ali’s period of suspension, Frazier had ascended to the heavyweight titles sanctioned by the World Boxing Council (WBC) and World Boxing Association (WBA). Usually, he was as soft spoken as Ali was loud, a slugger to Ali’s boxer and a plodder to Ali’s dancer.
They met on March 8, 1971 in Madison Square Garden, and each would earn a record $2.5 million in what the press called the “Fight of the Century.”
In front of a packed house, the two men fought evenly through the first six rounds, but Ali’s legs began to tire and, he cut back on the taunting.
In the 11th, Frazier hit the side of Ali’s head with a hard left hook that nearly decked the challenger. Frazier landed that same punch in the 15th round, and Ali went down this time. He did regain his feet within seconds, but the final bell signaled Frazier’s victory by unanimous decision.
A few weeks later, on April 19, eight Supreme Court justices heard Ali’s case — Justice Thurgood Marshall had recused himself because he had been the U.S. Solicitor General when Ali was convicted.
Afterward, the justices privately voted five-to-three to affirm the conviction. But Justice John Harlan soon changed his mind, and his clerks found a technicality from a previous Supreme Court case that had ruled in favor of a draft-refuser.
With the help of Justice Potter Stewart, Harlan successfully made the case for overturning Ali’s conviction. The court announced the eight-zero decision in Ali’s favor on June 28, 1971.
Michael K. Bohn is the author, among other books, of “Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports.’’