“No Viet Cong never called me nigger.”
– Muhammad Ali
Much of the coverage of Muhammad Ali’s death kind of ducks how polarizing his life was in the 1960s as a brash young black man who loudly touted his own talents and called out the world for what it was. He was loved and he was hated, and he was especially hated by mindless sports writers reflecting the mindless prejudices of their (and our) time (with some courageous exceptions like Robert Lipsyte, Howard Cosell, Dave Anderson, and others). Some of the hate still shows in the grudging tone of some postmortems, and perhaps as well in the general downplaying or omission of what was arguably Muhammad Ali’s greatest victory, his unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in Clay v. United States. The case emerged naturally enough out of American racism, eventually involving imperial war and government criminality, a nexus that plagues us still.
In early 1960 Louisville, Kentucky, 18-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. dutifully went to his local Selective Service Board #47 to register for the draft. Because he performed poorly on the Army’s minimum intelligence test, his classification was 1-Y, not 1-A: his government did not consider him eligible for military service. The U.S. was not at war in 1960, despite covert and not so covert military and paramilitary operations around the world, including “advisors” in Viet Nam. Cassius Clay was already a well-known amateur boxer, with 100 victories in 108 bouts and a host of Golden Gloves titles. And even though Cassius Clay won the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal that summer in Rome, back in Louisville he was not considered eligible for restaurant service, and people still called him (among other things) “boy.”
Clay won his first professional fight on October 29, 1960, and 18 straight more after that, while taunting heavyweight champion Sonny Liston into fighting the undefeated 22-year-old. On February 25, 1964, Liston lost his championship when he refused to come out of his corner for the seventh round. At a press conference the next day, Clay announced that he had accepted the teaching of the Nation of Islam, also known as Black Muslims, and that he had changed his name to Cassius X (later to Muhammad Ali). Reportedly this announcement prompted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to inquire into Ali’s draft status.
Needing more bodies for Vietnam, the US lowered draft standards
In February 1966, Louisville Draft Board #47 met to reconsider Clay’s case in new circumstances. Muhammad Ali had long since become the world heavyweight boxing champion, defending the title twice, but they still called him Clay. Although Ali had failed the Army’s intelligence test twice, the Selective Service had lowered the mental standards enough to make him eligible to be reclassified 1-A and eligible to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. While acknowledging that Ali (whom he called Clay) had a right to appeal any reclassification, the draft board chairman said, “This is a routine thing. There just isn’t any way out for him as far as I can see.”
After Ali was re-classified 1-A on February 17, 1966, the wire service UPI reported it with some editorializing:
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (UPI) – Cassius Clay, the self-styled “greatest,” appeared headed today for the greatest fights of his career, proving he’s a good soldier and winning the public approval that eluded him after ring victories. The heavyweight champion received a 1-A classification Thursday from his Louisville draft board, making him extremely vulnerable to the Army draft and placing his March 29 title defense against Ernie Terrell in jeopardy. If Louisville’s March draft quota is the same as in recent months. Clay will be in the Army before the fight, which cannot be moved to an earlier dale. If Clay is drafted, his title will be frozen until his discharge, a minimum of two years. “Why pick me?” was the immediate reaction of Clay, who was contacted at his Miami Beach training headquarters. ‘‘Why seek me out and hold a special one and a half hour meeting on it? I pay the salaries of at least 2.000 men a year. For two fights I pay for two modern bomber jets. I can’t understand why they picked me without testing me to see if I’m wiser or worser. I’m fighting in a game nine out of 10 soldiers wouldn’t want to take part in,” Clay added. [emphasis added]
At a press conference soon after, on a TV hookup in Miami, Ali answered questions about his situation. Recalling that event, at which he read a short poem, Ali later said: “Of all the poems I wrote, all the words I spoke, all the slogans I shouted … none would have the effect on my life or change the climate around me.”
Keep asking me, no matter how long,
On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song:
I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong …
According to the U.S., some ministers are more religious than others
On February 28, 1966, Ali applied to the Louisville local draft board for draft exemption as a conscientious objector, based on his religious beliefs as a minister in the Nation of Islam that: “to bear arms or kill is against my religion. And I conscientiously object to any combat military service that involves the participation in any war in which the lives of human beings are being taken.” The Louisville board denied his claim and he appealed to the Kentucky Selective Service Appeal Board. In May, the Kentucky Appeal Board affirmed the local board, but it also referred Ali’s case to the U.S. Department of Justice for an advisory opinion. The Justice Dept. then, in effect, sought its own advisory opinion, requesting an FBI investigation (that interviewed 35 people), followed by a special hearing on Ali’s “character and good faith.”
On August 23, 1966, Ali petitioned the appeals board directly for draft exemption, asking the board to re-classify him as a conscientious objector as a minister of the Lost Found Nation of Islam.
That same day, a retired federal judge presided at the Justice Department’s special hearing on Ali’s character. Hearing officer Lawrence Grauman reported his conclusions to the Justice Dept.: that Ali had stated his views “in a convincing manner, answered all questions forthrightly,” and was “sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form.” Judge Grauman recommended that Ali be granted conscientious objector status.
The Justice Dept. rejected the opinion it had sought and advised the Kentucky Appeal Board to deny Ali conscientious objector status. The Justice Dept. withheld the hearing board record from both Ali and the appeals board. Instead, the Justice Dept., ignoring the hearing record, asserted falsely that Ali’s objections to war “rest on grounds which are primarily political and racial. These constitute objections to only certain types of war in certain circumstances, rather than a general scruple against participation in war in any form … only a general scruple against participation in war in any form can support a claim for conscientious objector [status] … [Ali] had not consistently manifested his conscientious objector claim and had not shown overt manifestations sufficient to establish his subjective belief where his claim was not asserted until [conscription] became imminent.”
The Justice Dept.’s argument is clearly specious, since Ali had no reason to assert it till he was reclassified. But it was good enough for the Kentucky Appeal Board. On January 10, 1967, that board denied Ali’s conscientious objector claim without explanation. In February, the National Selective Service Appeal Board denied Ali’s appeal of the Kentucky decision.
Racial prejudice doesn’t make draft boards unqualified to pick victims
Taking a new tack, Ali requested and received a change of his induction center from Louisville to Houston, Texas, where he then lived. He then challenged induction on the basis that the under-representation of African-Americans on local draft boards violated anti-discrimination laws and removed any constitutional authority from those boards to induct African-Americans into the Army. The U.S. District Court for Western Kentucky chose to ignore Ali’s argument that the law was unconstitutional on its face or the underlying assertion that African-Americans were “systematically excluded” from Kentucky draft boards. Instead the court held that none of that mattered until and unless Ali was personally harmed and he could then seek redress. Preventing unconstitutional behavior was not a “substantial constitutional question,” the court held, “unless and until [Ali] presents himself at an Induction Station and either submits to induction or refuses to submit to induction.”
At about the same time, late March 1967, Ali issued a longer statement of principle:
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 slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.
But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. 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.
On April 28, 1967, Ali appeared as summoned to the Houston induction center, but when called to step forward, he refused. Three times he refused induction. He was arrested and jailed. Ali sought injunctive relief from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The court denied any relief because he could not show any “irreparable harm.” He had to be inducted first, then go to court. Again a federal court was making it clear the court wasn’t going to prevent any harm, but might or might not consider the damage later. Ali had a radically different perspective:
I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in this stand — either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.
An all-white jury for Muhammad Ali
On May 8, 1967, a federal grand jury indicted Ali for draft evasion. Ali’s petition to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to restrain the pending trial was denied. On June 20, an all-white jury of six men and six women heard little more than hour of testimony, mostly by government witnesses. The jury deliberated about 20 minutes before unanimously finding Ali guilty of refusal to submit to induction into the Armed Forces. Judge Joe Ingraham, a World War II vet, gave Ali the full maximum sentence: five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He also stripped Ali of his passport. Ali was released on $5,000 bond. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the verdict and Ali appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison” was the headline in The New York Times, with a story that took its time to mention an all-white jury. Deeper in, the Times reported: “After Judge Ingraham had ruled that a study of the huge draft board file of the Clay case had convinced him that the draft boards had not acted ‘arbitrarily or capriciously’ in refusing the deferment, Clay’s conviction became a foregone conclusion.” This would turn out to be false, a judicial error that contributed to the Supreme Court overturning the verdict.
In 1969, while the Supreme Court petition was pending, the U.S. government revealed that FBI wiretaps on other people had illegally picked up Ali in five conversations. Based on this information, on March 24 the Supreme Court vacated Ali’s almost two-year-old conviction and sent it back to the district court to determine if the illegal surveillance had tainted the verdict. The same trial judge, Joe Ingraham, privately reviewed the wiretaps and ordered four of them revealed to Ali. The fifth wiretap he withheld, stating that it had been lawful. Subsequently, with no public hearing, Judge Ingraham ruled that the government’s illegal wiretaps had not tainted its case against Ali and reinstated the full sentence.
Ali returned to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, contesting the withholding of the secret wiretap. The appeals court blinked in the face of the government’s “national security” argument. The court held, in effect, that it would be “intolerable” for courts to review and possibly rule against government actions taken in secret, unless the court had “relevant information” that it couldn’t get because it was secret. The court claimed it had balanced the rights of the government and the defendant, but omitted any discussion of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment prohibition against warrantless searches and seizures. The court upheld Ali’s conviction and Ali again appealed to the Supreme Court.
Boxing authorities wrongly stripped Ali of his license, championship
During 1969-1970, Ali fought another prolonged legal battle to get his boxing license reinstated by the New York State Athletic Commission (which had rescinded his license before he was convicted of any crime). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York eventually found that the Commission had exercised its legal authority to regulate boxing, but that in Ali’s case the “deliberate and arbitrary discrimination or inequality in the exercise of [the Commission’s] regulatory power, not based upon differences that are reasonably related to the lawful purposes of such regulation,” violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Commission did not appeal the ruling, and Ali was reinstated.
On October 26, 1970, Ali fought Jerry Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, over the strenuous objections of Georgia governor Lester Maddox, a notorious racist famous for distributing ax handles to use on African Americans. “We shouldn’t let him fight for money if he didn’t fight for his country,” Maddox argued while urging a boycott, but the fight went on and Ali won commandingly, after more than three years of forced retirement. After another warm-up fight, Ali took on the champion named in his absence, Joe Frazier, on March 8, 1971, and lost a unanimous decision. Both men went to the hospital after the fight, Frazier for three weeks.
All-white Supreme Court vindicates Muhammad Ali
On June 21, 1971, the Supreme Court decided Clay v. United States in Ali’s favor by an 8-0 vote. The ninth justice, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice, recused himself from the case because he had been U.S. Solicitor General when the case began, before his appointment to the court in October 1967.
The unanimous decision wasn’t as simple as it seemed. The initial vote of the eight justices in April was 5-3 to uphold Ali’s conviction, with Justice John Marshall Harlan II among the majority. With encouragement from his clerks, Justice Harlan did further research into Black Muslim doctrine and came to believe Ali’s conscientious objection was sincere. More pointedly, Justice Harlan found fault with the Justice Dept.’s rejection of its own hearing officer’s advisory opinion, that Ali was sincere. Further fault was found with the Justice Dept.’s false analysis of Ali’s guilt and the Kentucky Appeal Board deciding the matter without explanation. The court’s per curiam decision states:
The petitioner’s criminal conviction stemmed from the Selective Service System’s denial of his appeal seeking conscientious objector status. That denial, for which no reasons were ever given, was, as we have said, based on a recommendation of the Department of Justice, overruling its hearing officer and advising the Appeal Board that it “finds that the registrant’s conscientious-objector claim is not sustained and recommends to your Board that he be not [so] classified.” This finding was contained in a long letter of explanation, from which it is evident that Selective Service officials were led to believe that the Department had found that the petitioner had failed to satisfy each of the three basic tests for qualification as a conscientious objector.
In fact, the Justice Dept. had misled the board. During Supreme Court proceedings the government admitted it was wrong in its allegations on two of the three tests for conscientious objection, but argued there was some basis in fact for the third. The court was not impressed. Sidestepping the trickier issues in the case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Ali’s guilty verdict be reversed, based on the appeals board denying him conscientious objector status without giving any reason for the ruling.
Other than four years of unjust punishment, Clay v. United States ended fairly well for Muhammad Ali, who reflected on it with real grace (and dubious assumptions of the good faith of others) after the Supreme Court decision was announced. When a reporter asked if he would take legal action to recover his damages, Ali answered: “No. They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right.” Much later he said:
Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war. Then, after the rich man’s son got out of college, he did other things to keep him out of the Army until he was too old to be drafted.”
We haven’t come far in fifty-plus years. Real draft dodgers have become presidents and vice presidents. There is little widespread appreciation of the courage of Muhammad Ali’s convictions or of the full vindication of his unpopular public stance. On June 7, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a somewhat generic resolution honoring Muhammad Ali for his “extraordinary life, accomplishments, and countless contributions.” The resolution has only 42 co-sponsors so far, only one of whom is a Republican, Rep. Mia Love of Utah, also the only Republican member of the Black Caucus. Of the 393 other congressional representatives not supporting the Ali resolution, it’s unlikely there are any who have taken or will ever take as courageous and personally costly stand as Muhammad Ali took for fundamental American principles.
IMAGE: By Unknown –  Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 924-3060, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37191915