A half century-earlier, however, he was a more controversial figure in America, a follower of the Nation of Islam who had changed his name from Cassius Clay, denounced the Vietnam War in racial terms, and generally summoned the wrath of many Americans, particularly white Americans, including some in high places, who saw him as unpatriotic.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform,” he said, “and go 10,000 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?”
He had vowed, on religious grounds, that if drafted, he would not go.
But up until the spring of 1967, reporting for the draft had been a moot question for Ali, as he had retained a selective service classification, 1Y, deemed unfit for military service. But in April, that all changed.
Ali recalled the letter he got from the government in his autobiography, “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest,” remembering how it fell out of his memorabilia many years later and that when it did, he “was almost afraid” to pick it up and reopen it, for he “knew what it was and the memories it would bring back.”
It was dated April 1, 1967. And as was the custom, it said it was from “the President of the United States,” addressed to “Mr. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., AKA Muhammad Ali.” And it ordered him to report for induction in Houston, on April 28, 1967, at 8:30 a.m.
That was 50 years ago today.
The subsequent events changed his life and legacy in ways good and bad, by his own assessment. They would add another kind of bout to his long list of matches, this one called Cassius Clay v. United States before the U.S. Supreme Court.
It was a fight Ali didn’t want against an opponent with a longer reach. He had applied for a conscientious objector exemption, on the grounds that he was a pacifist religiously opposed to fighting in war. His draft board in Kentucky rejected the claim, a decision Ali and his lawyers appealed.
Ultimately, Lawrence Grauman, a Justice Department hearing officer in Ali’s case, concluded that Ali was sincere in his claim and recommended that he be given conscientious objector status.
The Justice Department never forwarded Grauman’s findings to the Selective Service appeal board and never even told Ali about them. Both the department and President Lyndon Johnson faced considerable political pressure in Ali’s case, as Hampton Dellinger reported in Slate last year.
For example, Rep. L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.), the segregationist war hawk chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, “promised a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that ‘we’re going to do something if that board takes your boy and leaves Clay home to double-talk.’”
Ali’s was a big, highly publicized and hotly contested fight. Indeed, shortly after Ali got his draft notice, he wrote in his autobiography, he went into the streets of downtown Chicago and discovered that “I’m not the only one who knows about it.”
“‘Hey! Is that Cassius Clay? That looks like Cassius Clay!'” someone from within a group of American Legionnaires shouted at him as they came out of a tavern on Michigan Avenue. “A man in a donkey cap lunges toward me for a better look,” Ali wrote. “His buddies start screaming, ‘They gotcha, they gotcha!’ One waves a little American flag. Another holds up a newspaper with its bold black headline: ARMY TELLS CLAY — PUT UP OR SHUT UP!
Ali walked a little farther, encountering a group of college students, who recognizing him, yell “‘Hell, no! Don’t go! Hell, no! Don’t go!’”
By the time he reported for induction at the federal Customs House in Houston, the country was in a frenzy. His lawyers had fought through the courts unsuccessfully for a stay until his appeals were exhausted.
The Los Angeles Times (which, like many papers, refused to call him Ali, despite his preference) described his arrival:
Clay stepped out of the cab in front of the induction center 20 minutes early for his 8 a.m. appointment and stepped into a swarm of reporters, photographers and television technicians. He was dressed in a metallic blue silk suit, a powder blue short-sleeved shirt and black loafers. Clay, mumbling “no comment” into a fence of outstretched microphones, made it to the third floor in about 10 minutes.
In Clay’s words: “People waiting for my arrival have jammed the sidewalk. When they see our cab drive up, they wave picket signs and scream ‘Muhammad Ali, don’t go! … Muhammad Ali.”
‘Hep, hep, don’t take that step,” they chanted.
By “step,” they meant the step forward all inductees were expected to take when their names were called after passing their final physicals. While Ali was processed as if he were just another inductee, everyone there, including about 30 other young potential draftees, knew he wasn’t.
“The white boy next to me is trembling,” Ali wrote in his autobiography (which was written with Richard Durham and edited by Toni Morrison).
“He seems very young, and his teeth are chattering. I speak to him, but he just nods his head nervously, afraid to look at me.”
Induction centers were human assembly lines, with doctors and clerks at stations along the way taking notes, checking eyes, ears, feet and genitals, prodding and poking indifferently. One young man was no different from another — except on this occasion.
“‘Take off your shorts … all the way down’” a doctor told Ali. “He adjusts his glasses,” Ali wrote, “and appraises me like I’m the bull that came into the herd.
“‘So you don’t want to go and fight for your country?'” the doctor said to Ali, his hand “tight on my testicles … A chill creeps over my whole body,” Ali wrote, “and I think of the days when castrations and lynchings were common in the South.”
Finally, those who passed all the exams, were placed on a line waiting for their names to be called. One by one they would step forward, as instructed.
Ali described himself as “sweating. … For months I’ve drilled myself for this moment, but I still feel nervous,” he wrote, hoping no one was noticing his shoulders trembling.
Finally the uniformed soldier calls out, “Cassius Clay — Army.”
Ali says nothing. The lieutenant calls out again: “‘Cassius Clay! Will you please step forward and be inducted into the Armed Forces of the United States?”
Ali doesn’t budge.
Finally, a senior officer appears.
“Er, Mr. Clay. …. Or Mr. Ali, as you prefer to be called … Would you please follow me to my office.” As Ali recalled in his book, the senior officer informs him of the “gravity of the act” he has just committed and offers him another chance, ushering him back out into the room where once again the lieutenant calls out:
“Mr. Cassius Clay … You will please step forward and be inducted into the United States Army.”
Ali never took that step.
When Ali got back to his hotel room, he heard on the radio that the New York Boxing Commission had taken away his license. Muhammad Ali was finished as a fighter, in the prime of his career.
“When I fly out of Houston,” Ali wrote in his autobiography, “I’m flying into an exile that will eat up what boxing experts regard as ‘the best years of a fighter’s life.’”
Ali was convicted of “willful refusal to submit to induction into the Armed Forces” and sentenced to five years in prison.
His case went to the Supreme Court twice, first on the question of whether the fact that he had been overheard on FBI wiretaps with, among others, Martin Luther King Jr., had tainted the government’s case (it hadn’t, the court ultimately decided) and then again in the spring of 1971, on the question of whether Ali’s induction notice was invalid because it was based on an “erroneous denial” of his claim to be classified as a conscientious objector.
In a decision famous for its behind-the-scenes shifts among justices at the high court, Ali won. In a “per curiam” (unsigned) opinion issued on June 28, 1971, the court ruled that the Justice Department wrongly advised the Selective Service appeals board to “disregard” the finding of Grauman, the hearing officer, that Ali’s CO status was legitimate. The court said that it was “wrong” to have determined that Ali’s “beliefs were not religious based and were not sincerely held.”
“Ali’s professional career,” wrote Dellinger in Slate, divides naturally into halves. In the first half (1960-67) before he was banned from the ring, Ali avoided much of the physical punishment that boxers typically suffer … In the second half (1971-80) Ali had to fight ugly to win. Heavier and slower, no longer able to fatigue and frustrate his opponents by making them miss … Ali would allow himself to be hit so often his opponents wearied from the opportunity.”
Ali still had an “awesome” string of victories, but, Dellinger wrote, “the physical and mental toll on Ali, as we know now, was just as dramatic. Ali’s Parkinson’s disease was caused, according to a medical expert in neurology who has treated Ali, by repeated blows to the head over time.”
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