Muhammad Ali Vs. The War In Vietnam
A true warrior must know when to raise his fists and when to seek paths to peace.
On June 3, 2016, one of the world’s most controversial boxing champions died. Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942, is remembered not only for his prowess in the ring, but also for his always unpredictable personality. But the facts that Ali both made a name for himself and built a distinguished career in the world of boxing shouldn’t make us believe he was a violent person, much less a killing machine (as we might, in contrast, believe of Mike Tyson).
One of the episodes that vividly demonstrate Ali’s commitment to peace occurred in the spring of 1966. Ali was already a world champion, and at age 24 was at the height of his career as a boxer. In March of that same year, the US military draft called upon Ali to appear to be sent as a soldier to the armed conflict then taking place in Vietnam. This would be the beginning of a battle unlike anything Ali had to face in the ring.
Ali, determined not to actively participate in the armed conflict, cited personal and religious reservations, and became a notable conscientious objector. So early in the conflict were his objections that Ali became the subject of harsh criticism. Even Elvis Presley, when called to arms some years prior, had enlisted “to serve his country.” Celebrity status doesn’t confer privilege. And not responding to the call was a crime, one involving a large fine and even jail time.
The statement that Ali reformulated on multiple occasions always retained, as will be seen, his subversive character. The champion explained why he preferred jail to war:
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.
The following year, in July, Ali refused to step forward when the judges called him by his birth name, Cassius Clay. The sentence handed down was a $10,000 fine and five years of imprisonment. Ali spent the duration of the war appealing through the court system and, increasingly, as an anti-war speaker as the popularity of the Vietnam War continued to decline. Likely the harshest blow he suffered during the appeals process was the rescinding of his boxing license. As he couldn’t be boxing professionally, eventually he lost his title.
In a 1970 interview, Ali referred to the incident of Vietnam in terms that not only reveal his conscientious objector status against war in any form, but that he could have great empathy, too:
I met two black soldiers a while back in an airport. They said: “Champ, it takes a lot of guts to do what you’re doing.” I told them: “Brothers, you just don’t know. If you knew where you were going now, if you knew your chances of coming out with no arm or no eye, fighting those people in their own land, fighting Asian brothers, you got to shoot them, they never lynched you, never called you nigger, never put dogs on you, never shot your leaders. You’ve got to shoot your ‘enemies’ (they call them) and as soon as you get home you won’t be able to find a job. Going to jail for a few years is nothing compared to that.”
The 1970s, though, were extremely fruitful for Ali. He would return to the ring to star in some of the most epic fights in boxing, including the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman and “Thrilla in Manila” against the legendary Joe Frazier. Although he retired in 1981, Ali spent much time bearing the message of Sunni Islam, which preaches coexistence between races and performing charitable works worldwide. Muhammed Ali’s legacy can’t be measured in boxing statistics, but we should also learn from him what enormous courage is required in opposing any unfair system, both when our circumstances demand it, and when awareness leads us in that direction.
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