Muhammad Ali Explains Why He Refused to Fight in Vietnam: “My Conscience Won’t Let Me Go Shoot My Brother… for Big Powerful America” (1970)


“In April of 1967, Muhammad Ali arrived at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Texas. ‘Standing beside twenty-five other nerve-racked young men called to the draft,’ writes David Remnick at The New Yorker, Ali ‘refused to respond to the call of Cassius Clay!.’ Offered the choice of going to Vietnam or to jail, he chose the latter ‘and was sentenced to five years in prison and released on bail.’ Ali lost his title, his boxing license, his passport, and — as far as he knew at the time — his career. He was newly married with his first child on the way. When Ali refused to go to Vietnam, he was ‘already one of America’s greatest heavyweights ever,’ notes USA Today. ‘He’d won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in Rome when he was just 18 and four years later, against all odds, defeated Sonny Liston to win his first title as world champion.’ Ali, it seemed, could do no wrong, as long as he agreed to play a role that made Americans comfortable. He refused to do that too, becoming a Muslim in 1961, changing his name in 1964, and speaking out in his inimitable style against racism and American imperialism. Ali stood on principle as a conscientious objector at a time when resisting the Vietnam War made him extremely unpopular. Sports Illustrated called him ‘another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion’ and pronounced that ‘his views of Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal.’ Television host David Susskind called him ‘a disgrace to his country’ and even Jackie Robinson felt Ali was ‘hurting… the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam.’ … But the country also gave Ali the opportunity to take his case to the Supreme Court, as his lawyer told Howard Cosell in the ABC news segment at the top. ‘Ali had no intention of fleeing to Canada,’ DeNeen L. Brown writes at The Washington Post, ‘but he also had no intention of serving in the Army.’ Ali strung together a living giving speaking engagements at anti-war events around the country for the next few years as he fought the verdict. … Ali remained prominently in the public eye throughout his appeal. He had become a ‘fixture on the TV talk show circuit in the precable days of the 1960s and ‘70s,’ writes Stephen Battaglio in a LA Times review of the recent documentary Ali & Cavett. He remained so during his hiatus from boxing thanks in no small part to Dick Cavett, who had Ali on frequently for everything from ‘serious discussions of race relations in the U.S. to playful confrontations aimed at promoting fights.’ …”
Open Culture (Video)


In this April 28, 1967 file photo, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is escorted from the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston by Lt. Col. J. Edwin McKee, commandant of the station, after Ali refused Army induction. Ali says he was a conscientious objector who would not serve in the Army of a country that treated members of his race as second-class citizens. 

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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