Muhammad Ali was a widely admired American icon. Many have forgotten that he was widely hated in the 1960s, a victim of racism and the Vietnam war. But amazingly, he became a hero to many who once despised him.
I first heard of Ali – then Cassius Clay – when I listened to the radio broadcast of his first championship fight in a far-off place called Lewiston, Maine. . I lived in the south then, and the consensus among my sixth grade classmates seemed to be he was the devil himself. Among adults, the term “uppity [N-word]” was common. I was intrigued. Unlike my white classmates, I had attended integrated schools in the north, and a poetry-spouting black boxer was exciting…and a little subversive.
I watched Ali’s fights over the next few years, and came to marvel at his astonishing prowess. I didn’t really even like boxing – I just like watching Ali. Then, in 1966, Ali did something remarkable.
Like so many young Americans, he was classified as eligible to be drafted for the Vietnam war. His response was “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Viet Cong.”
In 1966, this was shocking – the antiwar movement was in its infancy, and the draft was an unpleasant reality of life. Ali applied to be a conscientious objector, citing his Muslim beliefs. The press attacked fiercely, and Ali was branded a coward.
In 1967 he was stripped of his boxing title and convicted of draft evasion. He lost his livelihood at the height of his career, and faced prison. He was branded a traitor by many.
Was he a coward? I didn’t think so. He routinely faced opponents who could have killed him – I had seen the films of Benny Paret being killed in the ring, and knew well Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore.” Boxing took courage. Taking on the American government and giving up his career? This man was no coward.
Ali’s conviction was overturned, but he lost almost four years during his athletic prime. During those years, the war raged, the antiwar movement grew, and Ali became a symbol of resistance. He inspired many of us who faced the draft, showing us that sometimes it was more important to follow your conscience than to do the popular thing. By the fall of 1970, his opposition to the war was vindicated and he was allowed to return to his sport.
In the 1970s, Ali made a comeback, regained his title, and ultimately was brought down by the ravages of a brutal sport. But his determination to prevail gained him the admiration of many who had once despised him; his illness gained him the sympathy of others. He became an American hero.
For me, it’s young Muhammad Ali I remember most – a young man who was not afraid to do the right thing.
My own struggles against the draft are at the center of Some Way Outa Here.