The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Shoot them for what?’ How Muhammad Ali won his greatest fight

The magnificent heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali poses in a 1974 photo. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A little before 8 a.m. on April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali arrived at the Armed Forces Induction Center in Houston.

The Vietnam War was raging, American soldiers were dying by the hundreds, protesters were burning draft cards and conscientious objectors were fleeing to Canada.

Listen to this story on “Retropod”:

For more forgotten stories from history, subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Amazon Echo | Google Home and more

Ali had no intention of fleeing to Canada, but he also had no intention of serving in the Army.

“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,” he had explained two years earlier. “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 day anti-Vietnam War protesters tried to levitate the Pentagon

Instead the heavyweight champion emerged from a cab in a metallic blue silk suit. Reporters surrounded him.  Ali was a magnificent, walking quote machine, often speaking in rhyme and famously antagonizing his opponents with eerily precise predictions of the round in which he would eventually defeat them.

“This is the legend of Cassius Clay, the most beautiful fighter in the world today,” Ali had announced before his title match in 1964. “The brash young boxer is something to see, and the heavyweight championship is his destiny.”

The many reasons Muhammad Ali was the most famous man in the world. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Now renowned sportscaster Howard Cosell thrust a microphone before Ali, demanding to know what he would do. Cosell prodded the boxer, “Your action will be registered in two hours.”

As cameras flashed, Ali smiled and said, “No comment.”

Inside the induction center in Houston, Ali, a Muslim convert, refused to step forward when the name he’d been given at birth — Cassius Clay — was called.

The fight of Ali’s life was underway, one that he would win and would render President Trump’s offer of a pardon last week as merely symbolic.

Why Trump would pardon Muhammad Ali, even though he hates NFL political protests

A senior officer  pulled Ali out of line, took him to an office at the center and asked whether he understood “the gravity of the act,” according to Ali’s autobiography, “The Greatest: My Own Story.”

Ali replied, of course he understood. The officer ushered Ali out and once again a lieutenant called his name: “Mr. Cassius Clay, you will please step forward and be inducted into the United States Army.”

Ali refused to budge. Minutes later, Ali appeared outside the induction center and handed out a statement:

“It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. … I find I cannot be true to my beliefs in my religion by accepting such a call. I am dependent upon Allah as the final judge of those actions brought about by my own conscience.”

Later that day, Ali was stripped of his boxing license.

“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.’ ”

On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted by a Houston jury of a felony charge of violating the Universal Military Training and Service Act. According to a New York Times report, federal District Judge Joe E. Ingraham sentenced Clay to five years in prison and fined him $10,000.

The judge announced the sentence immediately, granting Ali’s request not to wait.

“I’d appreciate it,”  the 25-year-old boxer said, according to the Times, “if the court will do it now, give me my sentence now, instead of waiting and stalling for time.”

Banned from boxing, he and his attorneys would spend the next four years appealing that verdict. As the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, Ali made speeches on university campuses, becoming an antiwar and civil rights hero.

“It has been said that I have two alternatives,” Ali told a crowd of college antiwar protesters. “Either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative. And that alternative, that alternative is justice. And if justice prevails, I will neither go to the army, nor will I go to jail.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. praised Ali’s decision to become a conscientious objector.

“I’ve talked with him about it,” King said in a televised interview. “I think he is absolutely sincere. … It is legally justified to be a conscientious objector … I would strongly endorse his actions on the basis of conscience … I would not dare stand in the way of one who has taken a position because of moral conscience.”

Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost.

Ali’s boxing license was restored in 1970. “After two tuneup fights, the 29-year-old boxer sought to regain his heavyweight title from the new champion, Joe Frazier, in a highly touted fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971,” according to a Washington Post report.

“Each boxer was guaranteed at least $2.5 million, the highest payday for any athlete up to that time. Frazier knocked Ali down in the 15th and final round and won the fight by unanimous decision. Afterward, both fighters were treated at hospitals.”

In 1971, in what some considered a surprise decision, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Ali’s conviction.

What happened inside the court on that decision was almost as dramatic as watching Ali box.

According to the book “The Brethren,” by Post reporter Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong,  the justices met in a secret conference on Friday, April 23, 1971 — with Justice Thurgood Marshall taking himself out of the case because he had been solicitor general when the case began. The justices decided in a 5-to-3 vote that Ali was not a conscientious objector and made the decision to send him to prison.

Chief Justice Warren Burger had assigned Justice John Harlan to write the majority opinion, according to the book. Harlan’s clerk began drafting the opinion and “was persuaded by another clerk who had read Alex Haley’s ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’ to reconsider the question of Ali’s opposition to war.”

Harlan’s clerk became convinced that Ali really was opposed to all wars and was indeed a true conscientious objector. The clerk convinced Justice Harlan to reconsider the case.

That night, a reluctant Harlan took home papers and reexamined the case. The next morning, Harlan announced he was convinced the government had painted “Ali as a racist, misinterpreting the doctrine of the Black Muslims despite the Justice Department’s own hearing examiner’s finding that Ali was sincerely opposed to all wars,” according to “The Brethren.”

Harlan found that the Justice Department had committed an error and wrote a memo suggesting the court reverse the conviction. “When his memo suggesting reversal of the conviction was circulated, it exploded in the Court,” according to “The Brethren.” The stakes were high: If the other justices refused, Ali would be heading for prison for draft evasion.

Justice Potter Stewart suggested that the Court simply set Ali free, citing a technical error by the Justice Department. Eventually, all justices, including  Chief Justice Burger, agreed to overturn the conviction. The unanimous decision was announced on June 28, 1971.

When Ali heard the news, he was in Chicago, according to news reports.

“I thank Allah. And I thank the Supreme Court for recognizing the sincerity of the religious teachings that I’ve accepted,” said Ali, who died June 3, 2016.

Ali, according to the book, “did not know how close he had come to going to jail.”

In January 1974, Ali defeated Frazier. Then challenged George Foreman, the reigning heavy weight champion, in a match that would come to be called the “Rumble in the Jungle” because it was held in Zaire, now the Congo.

In the eighth round, Ali landed a right hand to Foreman’s chin, and sending Foreman to the canvas.

“Mr. Ali’s knockout victory was considered almost miraculous and took on symbolic importance because it took place on African soil,” according to The Post. “It had been more than 10 years since Mr. Ali first won the title, and seven years since he relinquished it. When he reclaimed the heavyweight championship in such dramatic fashion, many observers considered it one of the most remarkable displays of endurance and boxing skill in history.”

Read more Retropolis:

Martin Luther King Jr. met Malcolm X just once. The photo still haunts us with what was lost.

How the national anthem — and subverting it — became a pregame tradition in America

Amid Trump’s NFL war, photos of Martin Luther King Jr. ‘taking a knee’ resurface

‘Barbaric’: America’s cruel history of separating children from their parents