A prodigious talent in the ring, Muhammad Ali’s greatest battle ensued outside the ropes amidst a backdrop of the Vietnam War and a steamrolling civil rights movement during the turbulent 1960’s. Were it not for Ali standing up for his religious beliefs and the plight of black people in America by refusing entry in the Army in 1967, Ali would not be the symbol of humanitarianism he is today, respected and recognized the world over. Had he not been willing to risk fortune, fame and freedom for his personal convictions, Ali would now only be known as a great fighter, maybe even the greatest, but along the lines of Joe Frazier or Sugar Ray Robinson, and not the Dalai Lama.
Why world leaders and ordinary citizens alike accept Ali now as a beacon of hope in the face of adversity - America’s version of Dalai Lama - can be traced to his criminal trial in 1967 for draft evasion, which pitted the black champion against the white federal government. Ali’s greatest fight of his career was not in Madison Square Garden, the venue of the first two historic Ali-Frazier slugfests, nor was it in exotic lands such as The Philippines or Africa, the locations of Ali’s other historic bouts. Not only was Ali fighting the U.S. government, the champion was fighting a climate of racial discrimination in America.
This fight started in 1967 in Houston at his scheduled military induction. In April of that year, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army on the grounds that he is a minister of the Nation of Islam. An all-white draft board denied him conscientious objector 1 status in part because of Ali’s statements that he wasn’t against all wars, just the Vietnam War, and that he would participate in a Holy War.
Upon refusing entry at the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station, Ali released a statement detailing his reason for refusing entry: “It is in the light of my conscious as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted in the armed services. I do so with the full realization of its implications and possible consequences. I have searched my conscience and I find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call. My decision is a private and individual one and I realize that this is a most crucial decision. In taking it I am dependent solely upon Allah as the
final judge of these actions brought about by my own conscience. 2
When Ali refused induction into service, Americans vilified Ali, calling him a coward for refusing to fight for his country, yet still fighting for money in the ring. To Ali, his pugilism career did not conflict with his religion, more so it was his belief that his skill, fame and fortune serves as a powerful platform to advance the condition and well-being of poor black Americans. 3 Ali fought for the prestige, not for himself, but to uplift the condition of fellow black Americans, living in slums or projects, on welfare, hungry, uneducated, and with...