There are many things that can and will be said about Muhammad Ali.
Poet of self-promotion and master of the derisive arts. Three-time world heavyweight champion and dominant force in boxing across the span of two decades. Father. Husband. Son of the South. But amid the many glowing and more probative portraits that will be painted of Ali this weekend, there is one chapter and one quality worthy of particular attention in a country so beset by political strife and sharply contrasting visions of an ideal future. Muhammad Ali was an African-American Muslim and a conscientious objector. And, as a result, he was a man both loved and loathed.
Born Cassius Clay Jr. in Louisville in 1942 to a billboard painter and a housemaid, Clay was named after his father. Cassius Clay Sr. had been given the name of a white and wealthy Kentucky-born plantation owner, Republican politician, friend of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist who advocated for the gradual elimination of slavery after crossing paths with the publisher and anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison. Clay's namesake also played a role in the founding of Berea College, the first coeducational and racially integrated college in the South.
All of that is to say that Clay, the future heavyweight champion, was not raised in an apolitical home.
After a police officer directed him toward boxing, Cassius Jr. began his amateur career at 12. He won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome before turning pro.
Boxing experts were almost as interested in his fighting style — technically wrong but beautifully effective and efficient — as his habit of artfully denigrating his opponents and lauding himself.
Clay was a black man in America, a Southerner at that, who had a seemingly unencumbered sense of his athletic and human value. And this, mind you, was before black Americans in much of the South could vote.
When he defeated the reigning heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, via a technical knockout in February 1964, the new titleholder told reporters that he'd spent much of the fight struggling with irritated burning eyes that may have been caused by his opponent until his own dripping sweat and tears resolved the problem. It was a gripping story and an almost-too-perfect metaphor for the life of a Kentucky-born African-American boxer who had claimed an international prize.
Never a devastating puncher, his victories were often won by virtue of unexpected speed for his size and the ability to avoid punches and counter them in unexpected ways. When he was declared the fight's winner, he famously rushed to the edge of the ring and delivered a message to the news media: "I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived."
All of that might have forever dominated anything written or said about him, had it not been for another surprise.
The day after the fight, Clay confirmed rumors that he had converted to Islam and joined the Nation of Islam, the black nationalist sect. Soon, he also told the media that the new heavyweight champion would, henceforth, be known as Muhammad Ali. He had been raised a Baptist. Cassius Clay, Ali said, was his slave name, one that came to him by way of the most brutal, efficient and profitable systems of human bondage and exploitation the world had ever known. It was a name to which he would no longer answer, a name connected to an only somewhat evolved social and legal order he would no longer silently abide by.
It probably should not have been a complete surprise. Malcolm X, an African-American Muslim, imam and civil-rights activist who had fallen out with Nation of Islam leaders and would soon leave the sect, was present at Ali's match with Liston. Malcolm X served as Ali's spiritual adviser.
The announcements brought on ridicule, admonitions and denouncements. How dare this young black man — championed by America and himself — do such a thing? America may have been reeling from change. A young and widely admired president had been assassinated just months before. And a long-simmering civil-rights movement that had begun to force even those inclined to avoid political and legal questions to confront, on occasion, the ugly means by which racially disparate forms of citizenship had been maintained.
But, this was still an America that would only a short time later elect Richard M. Nixon, an outward, traditionalist president. It was still a country where, for non-white Americans, public safety and credibility hinged, in part, on their ability and eagerness to emulate, or at least make comfortable, white Americans. This Muhammad Ali fellow was an affront to some Americans, and a lost soul to some others, both black and white.
That included Ali's father, who before the championship fight told the Miami Herald that his son was "confused" and that the Nation of Islam had "ruined" both of his sons with a theology that fostered hate for white people and women.
The religious conversion, however, was really only part of Ali's transformation, the country soon learned.
The United States was on the verge of escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War in an attempt to keep the communist North from taking control of the South. Just 22, healthy and strong, Ali had every reason to expect to be drafted.
He receieved his draft notice in 1966 and took steps to identify himself as a conscientious objector. He filed several appeals. A draft board and FBI recommendation came down in favor of granting Ali conscientious objector status. The decisions, however, were overruled by the Justice Department. Ali had been classified 1-A, fit to fight without restriction
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.”
Ali spoke publicly about the conundrum faced by black men and women many times before him. They could be put in the awkward position of representing the United States on the international stage of sport, science, war or fame, while enjoying less than certain access to the benefits of citizenship at home.
On April 28, 1967, Ali reported as required to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, but refused to be inducted into the Army and would not answer to the name Cassius Clay. (Read the Houston Chronicle's account of that day and view photos of Ali leaving the station here). Boxing commissions around the country stripped Ali of his title. He was later arrested, and in June 1967 was convicted of draft evasion. The court sentenced Ali to five years in prison, fined him $10,000 and banned him from boxing in the United States. Ali would not box again for more than three years.
Certain of the Constitution's promises of religious freedom and citizenship with equal value for all, Ali appealed (read that appeal here) his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 28, 1971, Ali's conviction was overturned by an unanimous vote of the high court. The standard that had been used to deny Ali conscientious objector status was far from clear, the court ruled.
American involvement in Vietnam would continue until 1973. During that time, black enlisted men made up 14 percent of those killed but only 11 percent of the nation's young male population, according to an analysis by the American War Library.