Cassius Clay was just a boxer. A boxer who captured the hearts of Americans while winning the 1960s Olympic gold. Here was a young man at the age of 18, representing the greatest nation on the planet and making his people proud. He would again gain the fascination of America with his defeat of the anti-hero of the time Sonny Liston. However, this hero famed across mainstream America would not last, all it would take was a man finding himself. Introducing Muhammed Ali, another boxer. However, just a boxer was not simple enough. This man who used to be called Cassius Clay, now embodied the radical change that was beginning to creep its way into American society.
This Ali rejected what he called his slave name and now accepted the religion of Islam, a slap to the face of those Christian Americans who rallied behind him when he was in Rome and when he defeated Sonny Liston. This man and his strange religion of Islam now captured America in a different sense, one that didnt sit too well with many. He would soon become the anti-hero of some and at the different spectrum a hero to others. His life would parallel the decade. This man would represent a catalyst of change to the system and to society. It would take another battle to create this change though, not against any other burly man swinging his arms, but against a government and its war.
Alis battle with the US government really captured the epic social battle that was happening in America. New, some would say radical, themes and ideas had boomed in this decade of confusion and turbulence. Ali being a black Muslim made him the ideal foe to a government that at the time was conservative, Christian derived and backed. Ali was part of a the greater social movement of the 60s, a social revolution that brought attention to new ideas, faiths, and nerve to question the government. Essentially, Ali was a poster child of a new emerging America, one that was tired of the conformist ideals of the 50s. Alis battle was not just one for himself, but for the new generation of America that held the ideals of acceptance, difference, and change. Ali was not only the champion of boxing, but with his battle against the US government he would find himself becoming the champion of the people.
Young, brash and black, Ali would became a frightening symbol to the establishment when the country was in turmoil over civil rights and Vietnam.
To know who Muhammad Ali is and what he stands for, there needs to be an understanding of who Cassius Clay was. Cassius Clay symbolizes the young nave man who is yet to understands his surroundings. True, Clay understood the concept of segregation being raised in the southern city of Louisville, but he didnt really immerse himself in ridding of it. The events of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King didnt really strike young Clay. The real shocker of what was really going on in America at the time involved the terrible event that happened in Money, Mississippi Aug. 1955.# This is the event which really brought the concept home to Clay. The incident involved a young black named Emmett Till.
Emmett was from Chicago and was sent to visit family down south in Mississippi. While there he flirted with a white women, the womens husband caught word and later found Till and brutally murdered the young boy. The crime was publicly shown along with the trial. However, even though the men who murdered Till were obviously guilty, the men were acquitted and set free. Young Clay really felt an impact from the case. I felt a deep kinship to him when I learned he was born the same year and day I was, Ali would later write.#
Ali would write later about what he did when he was a boy to get back at those that failed Till. Essentially it was his first real protest against the establishment or so he wrote. What he did is symbolic because it was him and his friends throwing rocks at a poster of Uncle Sam and his famous words of Uncle Sam Wants You.# A small event that would later symbolize the large one that would occur when Ali was battling against the US government. Along with that incident, young Clay and his friends apparently aided in the derailment of train as well. True or not, Clays eyes were open to the situation and they would never close to it.
In time, Clay would battle his way through the boxing ranks. He would win state, national, and golden glove championships. This is where he began to capture the eye the public. Not only for his skills as a boxer, but his uncanny charisma, most importantly his mouth.# A skill that would undoubtedly serve him later in his life. While building his career, he was also building himself. Though marked in controversy, according to the FBI and later admitted by Ali, he first became acquainted with the Nation of Islam in 1958. Here he would hear blacks voicing their opinions about whites and injustices. There he would feel a sense of black pride.# However, the message that was given by the Nation of Islam was viewed as a negative one by most of society, including blacks. Its message was based on violence and was extremely counter-culture. Thus decidedly, Clay would keep the experience and its effect to himself.
Clay would soon reach his first real national experience. He would gain the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960s Olympics. While there he would be asked a question by a Soviet reporter. The question brought up focused on how he will return to a country that treats his kind like second rate citizens. Ali was quoted as saying We have our problems, sure, but tell your readers we got qualified people working on that, and Im not worried about the outcome.# How nave the young Clay was, this quote really showed how care free his life at the time was. His attitude would soon change, along with the country he was coming home to.
The years following the Olympics are the ones where Clay would find himself becoming Muhammad Ali. Clay would begin to immerse himself more and more into the Nation of Islam. Also during this time, Clay began to battle his way up in the ranks, soon his hopes were to fight then title holder Sonny Liston. More and more his interest grew in the Nation too. He would soon be under the wing of one of its spiritual leaders Malcolm X. Clay understood that to announce his interest in Nation of Islam might jeopardize his chance to fight Liston for the title, but he could not quite restrain himself. Hiding, concealment, and lying were not Clays traits. In time his new faith would leak to the presses.# Also in time, the monumental first fight of his career would happen as well.
The year of 1964 would be a memorable year for Clay. It was to be the year the Clay would become Muhammad Ali. First things first though, Clay had to take care of business. The fight was to be an easy victory for Sonny Liston over this big mouthed Clay. With the press reporting on Clays association with the Nation, the fight was to be hyped up even further. It was to be a holy-war on the smaller scale.# As rumors flew interest grew. The fight took place on February 25, 1964 and Clay shocked the world. He didnt just shock the world with his victory over Liston, but he would really shock them with his words. The day after the fight would be a monumental one, for it was the day that Clay let the world know that he was to be a Muslim and a member of the Nation of Islam. It was meet with quick response. Reporters were quoted as saying:
This is the worst thing that ever happened to boxing This might be the worst thing that ever happened to the youth of America, which needs a proper role model#
Other attacks would be made as well, this one by Jimmy Cannon, the dean of boxing writers:
this is the first time it (boxing) has been turned into an instrument of mass hate. It has maimed the bodies of numerous men and ruined their minds but now, Clay is using it as a weapon of wickedness in an attack on the spirit. I pity Clay and abhor what he represents#
Even Joe Louis, the great black boxer from the 30s and 40s was upset with Clays move.
Clay will earn the publics hatred because of his connections with the Black Muslims. The things they preach are the opposite of what we believe.#
However, other blacks would voice other opinions on the matters. Jackie Robinson really captured the moment and what it meant to those blacks encouraged by what Ali did.
Clay spreads the message that more of us need to know, I am the Greatest,he says. I am not advocating that Negroes think they are greater than anyone else. But I want them to know they are just as great as other human beings.#
It wouldnt be the last of comments on Clay and his new religion. Days following the bout Clay would shock the nation again. On March 6, 1964, Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation, proclaimed that Cassius Clay was no more. From that day on, his name would be Muhammad Ali.#
With that change, Muhammad created an appeal for some and fear for others. Although his name change wouldnt gain the appeal that he would later receive for his stance against the draft, it did gain respect. Writer Jill Nelson explained her sentiments at the time:
We werent about to join the Nation, but we loved Ali for that supreme act of defiance. It was the defiance against having to be the good Negro, the good Christian waiting to be rewarded by the righteous white provider. We loved Ali because he was so beautiful and powerful and because he talked a lot of lip. But he also epitomized a lot of black peoples emotions at the time, our anger, our sense of entitlement, the need to be better just to get to the median, the sense of standing up against the furies#
Her statement captures a real issue of the decade. The sense of black pride and civil rights. Ali with a simple name and faith change created his first ripple in the waters of the 1960s.
While Muhammads new life was beginning, so was the advent of the war that would take Alis fame to another level. Vietnam was a war torn country thousands of miles away from the United States. Many Americans wouldnt even know where it was on the map if given the chance. However, in time the American public would learn that Vietnam was a place that needed to be fought for, for the fear of Communism was lurking there.
In time the Vietnam Conflict would intensify into a war. More and more American involvement could be felt across the nation as soldiers would be leaving their homes to go to far and strange land in southeast Asia. Soon a response would occur that would ignite further protests in the future. On April 17, 1965, the first major national protest occurred. 25,000 marched against the war in Washington, DC. This march was started by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This group would embody the radical white youth but would borrow from the black freedom movement. Their leaflets would read:
What kind of America is it whose response to poverty and oppression in Vietnam is napalm and defoliation? Whose response to poverty and oppression in Mississippi is silence?#
With this protest, the formation of white bitterness began. White youth was another part of a disenchanted society that would join the ranks. In part doing so, they would end up being another part of society that would soon join the backing of Muhammad Ali.
Ali was essentially quiet on the issue of Vietnam in the beginning. His concentration laid mainly on his next bouts and his deeper devotion into the Nation of Islam. However the question of Vietnam would soon come to him and invoke a nations fury.
In 1960, when he was eighteen, he had registered in Louisville for selective service. In 1962, he was classified as 1-A. Two years later, just a few weeks before the Liston fight, he was ordered to go to an army induction center in Coral Gables to take the physical and written examinations given to all draftees. He failed the fifty-minute-long aptitude test badly. His score was so low that he was declared to have an IQ of 78. This, at the time, made him ineligible for active service.# Quickly reaction spread that Ali had avoided the army by failing his induction test. The reaction was almost comparative to when Ali converted. It even began to get attention from members of the government. South Carolina Congressmen L. Mendel Rivers began a tour promoting that Ali be reclassified. He toured the country with these words:
Clays deferment is an insult to every mothers son serving in the armed forces,he raged. Here he is, smart enough to finish high school, write his kind of poetry, promote himself all over the world, make a million a year, drive around in red Cadillacs-and they say hes too dumb to tote a gun! Whos dumb enough to believe that?#
Even J. Edgar Hoover was greatly interested in having the young black Muslim-convert drafted. For Hoover thought the group to be militias and a real threat to the United States.# After long extensive looks into Alis past, even Hoover was convinced that Ali really failed the test. The matter would be laid to rest until 1966. A little after his fight with Floyd Patterson he would soon begin his fight with the United States Government.
Now the issue of the draft had been one that Alis religion had been feverishly against. Elijah Muhammads own son was drafted but refused to go on the grounds of being a conscientious objector.# This clause had been introduced by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to deal with the question of Quakers.# Elijahs son Wallace claimed to be a minister of the Muslim faith. However, this was to be of no matter and Wallace was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his refusal of the draft. This would later be a dj vu for Ali.
Ali was aware of the Nations stance and history and of the hypocrisy of the black involvement in US foreign wars. His friend Malcolm X really put the black involvement in the Vietnam war in a context that really could be vindicated:
I will not fight for this country in warThe most forceful thing that black men could have done after the Birmingham bombings would have been to send all draft notices back to the Defense Department until the bombers were found and punished. As long as I am treated as a second-class citizen I will act as a second-class patriot.#
These were strong words, however they werent being to far out of line when it came to blacks in America. It was now Alis turn to join ranks of others who were against the war.
Amongst the nations ever growing movements such as the SDS and SNCC, it was now Alis time. In 1966, while monks were pouring gasoline on themselves lighting themselves on fire, Ali was in his Miami apartment with New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte. It had just been said that Alis status had been raised to 1-A, giving him eligibility to be drafted. Lipsyte gives an insight to what happened on the day in 1966.
There were all kinds of rumors that an army convoy was on its way to pick him up and take him to Vietnam wave after wave of journalists arrived and starting asking questions about Vietnam and the VietcongThe fever of the questions kept building and buildingtired, angry, pissed off and he gave his quote I aint got nothing against them Vietcong.#
In retrospect after the Pentagon Papers, Kent State, the March on the Pentagon, these words can be viewed as a noble statement. However, the reality of the situation at the time was really the opposite. With those words, Ali would be marked as a traitor, an American hater, etc. On the other hand, his rebellious character which starter as a racial motivated one would now be widened in the scope of things.# Mohammad was also quoted as saying these words after the comment, Im a member of the Black Muslims and we dont go to no wars unless declared by Allah himself.# These comments wouldnt matter, the nerve across America was already hit.
The phones at Alis place in Miami a few hours later were ringing constantly. Ali remembers one of the phone calls he had:
Muhammad, Cassius–whatever you call yourself, I heard you on TV! he shouted. You cowardly, turncoat black rat! If I had a bomb I would blow you to hell! Ive got a message for you and your kind#
Others were You gonna die, nigger, before the nights out!# However on the other hand, Ali remembered another side of the controversy.
And in the days that followed, calls came in from Kansas City, Omaha, St. Louis, Las Vegas, New York, Philly. Housewives and professionals and plain everyday people–who I never heard from except when I pulverized somebody in the ring–thanked me for what I said. Students called from campuses, urging me to come and speak. It was a strange new feeling, and now, without planning or even wanting it, I was an important part of a movement I hardly knew existed.#
Ali with his few choice words in 1966, would find himself to be in the minority when it came to the issue of Vietnam. However, he would be the first of many American celebrities that would voice their opinion on the senselessness of the war and create the attention that was needed to start a movement. Alis response to the draft would be a major boost to the anti-war movement. He was a heavyweight boxer, one not alien to the American working class. A figure that could not be dismissed as unmanly or cowardly, as much an icon of masculine dominance as Miss America was of feminine subservience.#
However, others would use that quote like a banner of treason. State governments, boxing commissioners, veterans groups, and editorial writers would use that quote as an element of fear. Ali was encouraging other young people to turn their backs on their patriotic duty, would soon be the theme for Ali.# These sentiments would be used to have Ali ousted of boxing in the country. Ali would find himself having to do the rest of his boxing outside of the country, for their was practically an official boycott of the Champ at home.
Ali saw this time during 1966 as a period of suffering and a period to build his character. Ali told Lipsyte during this period that:
All great men suffer Jesus was condemned, Moses, Noah, Elijah, Martin Luther King. To be great, you suffer, you have to pay the price. Why are so many powers on me?#
This quote is really powerful. All though Ali is boasting of his importance, he was right, even before he could be vindicated. He would follow this quote with I was meant for somethinga divine destiny.# What Ali was meant for was bringing awareness. He was hypothetically speaking the sacrificial lamb when it came to celebrities and the issue of Vietnam. He was doing something that others didnt have the courage to do.
Alis character building would come when he was made to travel for his bouts during his boycott. He would continue to voice his opinion on Vietnam as reporters would heckle him more on the issue. His response:
Keep asking me, no matter how long
On the war in Vietnam, I sing this song
I aint got no quarrel with the Vietcong#
Overseas, the war in Vietnam was considered quite unpopular. In retrospect, it can compared to situation of Iraq and today. Ali found himself very attractive to many foreign intellectuals, students and political leaders, not just boxing fans.# As the anti-war movement grew so did Alis persona as an advocate. However, he would still have to come home to face the music, no matter how popular he was abroad.
During his time around the World, Alis legal team would be very busy emerging themselves in a way to get him out of the draft. Drawing on the central teachings of the Quran and the Nation of Islam, they would file a request for conscientious objector status. On August 23, 1966, Ali would find himself in front of a special judicial hearing where he would testify on his behalf.# Ali would tell them that he became a conscientious objector the minute he heard the words of Elijah Muhammad. Ali also noted:
“It would be no trouble for me to accept conscientious objector [status] on the basis that I’ll go into the armed services boxing exhibitions in Vietnam, or traveling the country at the expense of the government or living in the easy life and not having to get out in the mud and fight and shoot…. If it wasn’t against my conscience to do it, I would easily do it. I wouldn’t raise all this court stuff and I wouldn’t go through all of this and lose and give up the millions that I gave up and my image with the American public, that I would say is completely dead and ruined because of us in here now, and so I wouldn’t turn down so many millions and jeopardize my life walking the streets of the South and all of America with no body guard if I wasn’t sincere in every bit of what the Holy Qur’an and the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad tell us and it is that we are not to participate in wars The Holy Qur’an teaches us that we do not take part in any part of war unless declared by Allah himself”#
Judge Lawrence Grauman, the presiding Judge on the judicial hearing, ruled that Ali was sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form.# The uproar on the ruling was swift and productive. In a vicious response the Justice Department, insisting that Alis objection to the war was racial and political, convinced the Kentucky appeal board to ignore the recommendation and uphold the 1-A classification. The Justice Department went as far as using FBI information to show that Alis motives were primarily political.# Essentially, it was as if the government was doing all in its power to make Ali be drafted. His defiance as a Black Muslim in the calamity of the 60s, would make him the perfect example for the government.#
As the year of 1967 would begin, Vietnam backlash would grow. Anti-war sentiment would spread rapidly across Europe. At home another crusader was helping, Martin Luther King would begin to carry the torch against the draft. He would say, the promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.# In February, Bertrand Russells war crimes tribunal would begin, starting a wave of information concerning American atrocities in Vietnam.# As casualties mounted and doubts began to grow, still a majority of America would believe in the righteous cause of the unjust War.
Muhammad would continue to use his voice for opinions on the war and of civil rights. The young fighter, at the age of 25, would find himself being a global hero in the battle of righteousness. On April 28, 1967, he would take his most famous step in truly becoming the The Greatest. On that day, Ali would go to Houston for his summons to be inducted in the draft. While walking into the building, crowds would be cheering him to refuse the draft, and thats just what he did. Ali would refuse the draft and walk outside to a crowd of reporters. There he would hear protestors on both sides shouting for him and against him.# Alis actions created repercussions and opportunities. The repercussions would come swiftly too. He would quickly be stripped of his title and of any opportunity of fighting again. Most importantly, there was the five year jail sentence that usually awaited a man who denied the draft.
The opportunity came for him to be champion of the people and their rights. In the weeks following his refusal, Ali would tour the country addressing crowds at Universities. At the University of Chicago, I have lost nothing, he told the crowds, a mix of black and white. I have gained the respect of thousands worldwide, I have gained peace of mind.# Nonetheless, he would also gain the indictment of a grand jury that would find him guilty of draft evasion.
In time his trial would be brought to the Supreme Court, Cassius Clay(aka. Muhammad Ali) vs. The United States of America. Alis trial would be a message to many. To some it would be one of fear, one that if the Government can do this to Ali, then surely they could easily be dealt with. To others, Alis struggle would be a battle cry, a battle cry to stop the injustices of the government infringing on the rights of the people and what was truly, morally right.
During the trial of Muhammad Ali, Ali would find himself in boxing exile. He would lose many things along the way, his friends, the glory, and his money. However, as time went on, Vietnam would get worse. In 1968 the Tet Offensive would ensue showing that the light at the end of the Tunnel was not near, that the American people had been lied to. Causalities would mount into the tens of thousands. News would be broadcast everyday showing the horrors that our American boys were dealing with. Popular opinion would sway and demonstrations would grow and grow. Ali during the years of 67-71 would tour the country going to rallies and meetings. Ali over that course would be transformed from social outcast to a social figure. He was to be confirmed correct in his stand and in 1971, his conscientious objector status was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Ali didnt need the Supreme Courts action to feel vindicated. Though his message never changed during the 60s, America did. His message would be that part of the 60s which was right and just. The society would grow to reach the level at which Ali was thinking. Norman Mailer once put it He is the very spirit of the 20th Century, rightly so. Not only was he the spirit, he is a poster boy for the growth of the individual and of moral conviction.