April 28, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the day that boxing champion Muhammad Ali (1942-2016), citing religious reasons, was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to be inducted into the United States Army. That memorable event is somehow all the more amazing when considered as part of an evolution whereby “The Greatest” went from being reviled as a “draft-dodger” to being respected as a spokesperson against Islamophobia and a political activist for persons living with Parkinson’s disease.
Born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. into a Baptist family in Louisville, Kentucky, he abandoned his “slave name” and became known as Muhammad Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964. It was a deep commitment, one that continued throughout the rest of his life—most recently in the context of Donald Trump’s comments about banning Muslim immigration to the U.S., when Ali released a statement that read, in part: “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion. We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda. They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.”
In the case of refusing conscription in the military during the Vietnam War, he famously declared having “no quarrel with those Vietcong,” confronting white protestors and stating , “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 nigger, 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.” Within two months, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to a five-year stint in prison, fined $10,000, and banned for three years from boxing. Awaiting his appeal, he somehow arranged the “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier—losing after 15 rounds (the first loss of his professional boxing career), but winning an overturn of his conviction for draft evasion from the U.S. Supreme Court in Clay v. United States (403 U.S. 698) in 1971. His local draft board rejected Ali’s application for “conscientious objector” classification, but the country’s highest court reversed the conviction, deciding that the government had failed to properly specify why Ali’s original application had been denied.
At this time, it might be instructive to review Muhammad Ali’s history relative to the military. In 1964, he failed the qualifying test for the U.S. Armed Forces, his writing/spelling skills considered sub-standard; later, as those test standards were revised, he was reclassified 1-A—making him eligible for the draft. It was at this point that Ali publicly declared his refusal to serve, citing how , “War is against the teaching of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Ali then changed his legal residence to Houston, TX and, even though the federal judicial district denied his appeal for reclassification as a Muslim minister in a 4-0 vote, he refused three times to step forward when called to serve. As noted in the 2013 film Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, it took the Supreme Court ruling that moral and ethical objections to war were valid if for religious reasons. While highly controversial, his decision also was a financial setback; yet, it is important to point out that today, the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice, headquartered at the University of Louisville, works to advance Ali’s emphasis on peace-building, social justice, and the prevention of violence through educational programs, training, service and research. Drawing on his vision and work, it “develops initiatives that support human dignity, foster responsible citizenship, further peace and justice and address the impact of violence in local, state, national and international arenas.”
When, in 1984, it was revealed Ali had Parkinson’s disease, he allowed his iconic image to become the face of “Fight Night,” a fund-raiser for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center (MAPC) at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, AZ. His philanthropy extended to serving as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, and in his hometown Louisville, KY, he frequented soup kitchens and hospitals and supported numerous national organizations. Relative to war, jail, judicial decisions, and even his own health, Muhammad Ali was a fighter beyond the boxing ring. In the award-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996), which dealt with his October 30, 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” heavyweight championship match against George Foreman in Zaire, Ali reclaimed the title taken from him for his refusal to be drafted. Today, we would do well to recall his prescient declaration relative to that event: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion; not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Linda K. Fuller (Ph.D., University of Massachusetts), Professor of Communications at Worcester State University, has produced 250+ professional reports and authored/(co-)edited more than 20 books—including National days/National ways (2004), Sport, rhetoric, and gender (2006), African women’s unique vulnerabilities to HIV/AIDS (2008), Sexual sports rhetoric (2009), Tsunami communication (2010), Women, war, and violence (2010), CS Monitor: An evolving experiment in journalism (2011), The power of global community media (2012), and Female Olympians: A mediated socio-cultural/political-economic timeline (2016). She has also been awarded Fulbrights to Singapore and Senegal.