“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. 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 brash, tough and fast-talking Muhammad Ali was clear in his mind regarding why he did not want to be inducted into the U.S. Army – and he was going to be heard.
Many refused the draft but none of them was quite like Ali. Granted that when the command came for him in 1967 to sign up, he was already a world heavyweight boxing champion.
As such, his rejection was loud. The man’s personality and politics were already well-known by the time he was 25.
The heavy immorality of the many series of U.S. military adventurism means that we tend to look back gracefully on those who oppose these wars and applaud.
However, very little time is spent on the particularity of these oppositions. For someone as controversial a figure as Ali, not joining U.S. military efforts was not simply because he was a pacifist.
Sure, he was against the war in Vietnam before anti-war movements were even assembled by the counterculture folks. But Ali was not the kind who encouraged turning the other cheek.
Of integration, he once said, “I’m not going to get killed trying to force myself on people who don’t want me. Integration is wrong. White people don’t want it, the Muslims don’t want it.”
When the strenuous consequences of refusing to be drafted came upon the boxer, Ali’s conscientious objection made no appeals to pacifism.
“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 do so with the full realization of its implications. I have searched my conscience,” Ali said in April 1967.
That is not to say Ali did not want some peace. That would be ludicrous.
In fact, after some time of disagreements with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, King summarised the problem of American imperialism, touting the commonality he shared with the boxer: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all – black and brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression.”
Ali would later come to realize the problem was not simply white against black. Interests capable of hiding behind racial tensions caused and ensured wars.
The biggest point of defiance for Ali was that America never let him feel like he was part of the country. And he was angry.
The boxer claimed that he threw away the gold medal he had won at the 1960 Olympics in Rome when the thought dawned on him that the country for which he fought does not really want him.
In 1964, Ali changed his name from the given-at-birth Cassius Clay, calling the latter, a “slave’s name”.
And when he was sentenced to jail for refusing to be inducted into the army, Ali said “So what? We [black people] have been in jail for 400 years.”
The United States did not feel like his home yet he was being commanded to take the ultimate risk. In some ways, this was an opportunity to vent and remind this country of the ugliness it had sown in him.
Asking one’s country to hold up its end of the bargain was not too much to expect. For Ali, the morality of this social contract lied in reciprocity.
And when the country does not uphold its promise, we disobey. Ali walked the talk.