On June 20, 1967, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the military.
Religious Opposition Leads Ali to Draft Evasion
In 1964, at the age of 22, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship. The smooth-talking, clean-living Clay could have become a popular and marketable champion, but just days after the fight he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam.
Much of white America found the Nation of Islam to be dangerous and anti-American. Clay defended the organization to The Associated Press: “Yet people brand us a hate group. They say we want to take over the country. They say we’re Communists. That is not true. Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons.”
He would soon change his name to Muhammad Ali, though few outside the Nation of Islam would call him that for some time.
It would not be long before his religion came into conflict with his patriotic duty. In 1966, Ali—who avoided the draft in 1964, when he failed a qualifying psychological test—was declared a 1A under the Army’s lowered standards, making him eligible to be drafted. However, as a Muslim, he believed that only Allah could command him to go to war.
Ali declared that he would not serve in Vietnam, proclaiming, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He appealed for an exemption, claiming that he was a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs.
“Cassius Clay has a blind and total belief in every word of Message to the Blackman, and thus he becomes a rare individual: a genuine, if misguided, conscientious objector,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen in 1966,
Ali and his managers claimed that government had tried to arrange a deal whereby Ali would enter the Army but be sent to fight, according to Time magazine. Ali declined, but the government denies the deal was ever offered.
On April 28, 1967, after three appeals were denied, Ali was forced to appear at induction ceremony in Houston. He performed all the qualifying tests, but when he was called to step forward to symbolize induction, he refused.
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Afterwards, Ali read a statement explaining his actions: “I have searched my conscience and I find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call. … If justice prevails, if my Constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.”
Two months later, a Houston jury took only 20 minutes to convict Ali—still called Cassius Clay in court—of draft evasion. He was given a five-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. He would also be stripped of his passport and his heavyweight title, and was banned from fighting in the United States.
“Overnight he became a ‘nigger’ again,” said sportswriter and Ali promoter Harold Conrad, according to Time. “He threw his life away on one toss of the dice for something he believed in. Not many folks do that.”
Ali was free on appeal, and the judge told him that his sentence would likely be reduced. “Whatever the final sentence,” wrote Time, “it appears unlikely that Clay—still indisputably the best heavyweight in the world—will ever again be a championship contender.”
Ali’s Exile and Return to Boxing
Sources in this Story
- The New York Times (AP): Clay Says He Has Adopted Islam Religion and Regards It as Way to Peace
- Time: Gaseous Cassius
- Sports Illustrated: A Case Of Conscience
- Time: “The Greatest” Is Gone
- The New York Times: Clay Refuses Army Oath; Stripped of Boxing Crown
- The New York Times: Ali Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison
- Time: K.O. for Cass
- African-American Involvement in the Vietnam War: Muhammad Ali
- ESPN: He is simply...the greatest
Ali spent the next three years free while his conviction was on appeal; he lectured at universities and Muslim gatherings around the United States and gained support as anti-war sentiment increased.
His appeal would reach the Supreme Court in 1971. In Clay v. United States, the Court ruled 8-0 that Ali met the three standards for conscientious objector status: that he opposed war in any form, that his beliefs were based on religious teaching and that his objection was sincere. His conviction was reversed.
He returned to boxing in 1970 in an unsanctioned bout against Jerry Quarry. In 1971, he fought undefeated champion Joe Frazier in “The Fight of the Century” for a record purse of $2.5 million. He lost a unanimous decision, but would beat Frazier in their 1974 rematch.
Later that year, he upset champion George Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the first time since it was stripped away in 1967.