On Saturday morning, as most of the world learned of Muhammad Ali's death and began paying tribute to the boxing and cultural legend, a certain faction of the population – mostly white, most definitely conservative – decided that it was a great time to drag out their half-century-old complaints about a man some of them still refuse to refer to as anything but his slave name.
State Rep. Martin Daniel – a Republican lawmaker from Knoxville, Tennessee – took a break from celebrating The Dukes of Hazzard as an accurate portrayal of life in the American south to unleash a series of since-deleted tweets decrying the fallen hero. "Cassius Clay was a skilled, great boxer, but failure to enlist in the US military when the call was made is black cloud on his character," he decried. "Dutiful, patriotic, brave black and white men died in jungles while Cassius sat warm and cozy in the USA."
Broadcaster Piers Morgan – a man who only recently discovered the Beyonce is black trend and is still quite terrified about that development – quickly piled on with tweets accusing the public and media of trying to "sugar-coat" Ali. He later followed that up with a mess of a Daily Mail column with the headline "Muhammad Ali WAS a racist who repented. Trump ISN'T a racist but he too needs to sing a more tolerant tune". It doesn't address the boxer's relationship with the Vietnam War at length, but does misinterpret and denigrate the inspiration behind his conscientious objection to the draft: his religion.
Even in death – even after history has proven him right – America still fears and struggles with the black Muslim man who stood up for himself and what he believed in.
The anti-Ali argument isn't just a morally dubious one; it's an inaccurate one. Contrary to what his detractors insist, he wasn't a draft dodger. "The charge is completely unfounded," Newsweek's Tom Mullen argued earlier this week. "Ali never dodged the draft; he opposed it, accepting the legal consequences without any attempt to evade them. He didn't flee to Canada or enroll in college to obtain a deferment. From the moment he learned of his induction, Ali stood firmly in the proud tradition of civil disobedience, saying, 'Just take me to jail.'" (For further edification, Raw Story offers a helpful explanation of the difference between a dodger and a conscientious objector, and offers some helpful examples of actual dodgers like Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh here.)
Muhammad Ali, a star fighter in his prime and an Olympic gold medalist who still couldn't get service – or be treated with basic human dignity – in many good old American establishments, became eligible for the draft when the U.S. Military significantly lowered its standards in an effort to conscript more men in early 1966. Ali, whose score of 78 on an Army-issued I.Q. test was too low for service in 1962 (which offers an interesting anecdotal argument against the standard I.Q. test and its racial and cultural biases: Ali, arguably one of the quickest wits and most nuanced thinkers of our time, tested in the bottom 16 percent of the population) was now considered fit for duty, and he was quickly conscripted.
Upon notification of his status, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector, and that he would not serve because of his religious beliefs. "War is against the teaching of the Qur'an," the member of the Nation of Islam stated. "We are not supposed to take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers."
In an oft-quoted reflection on American hypocrisy, Ali also declared that "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n***er."
He also argued "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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?"
Far from "[sitting] warm and cozy in the USA", Ali suffered greatly for his stand. In an America that still largely supported the war, his act had personal as well as political implications. On April 28, 1967, when Ali refused to answer to the call of his name during his officially scheduled induction, the New York State Athletic Commission both stripped him of his title and suspended his boxing license. Other commissions soon followed this lead. When Ali was offered a match in Yokohama, Japan following his conviction on June 20, 1967, the judge ruling over the case dismissed Ali's lawyers' plea to allow him to travel for the match (a plea which included the promise that the fighter would regularly check in with American authorities overseas and return to the U.S. immediately following the fight) and ordered the boxer to surrender his passport immediately.
While he might not have been able to box in any state, or leave the country to pursue other opportunities to make a living at his trade, Ali never stopped fighting. While taking his case to the Court of Appeals (which upheld the conviction) and the U.S. Supreme Court (which eventually overturned the conviction in 1971), Ali undertook a speaking tour. The speaking engagements both offered him an opportunity to earn a living, and allowed him to publicly address his issues with the unjust war in Vietnam and the unjust treatment of black and Muslim people back home.
In retrospect, it's easy to see the years that Ali spent exiled from the ring only made him greater and more important. "Ali's actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete's greatness," columnist William Rhoden wrote for The New York Times in 2013. "Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?"
In the heat of the moment, the public and the press weren't so quick to respond to Ali's stance. It wasn't until late 1969 that Esquire, one of the boxer's few high profile supporters in the mainstream media, finally stood up for the fighter. With a cover that featured an impressively varied collection of luminaries from the arts and sports worlds standing in a ring under the headline "Muhammad Ali deserves the right to defend his title," the magazine published a petition in favor of the champ.
The article that accompanies the petition, "Muhammad Ali and the Little People" by Irwin Shaw, is very much a product of its time and an intellectual establishment awash in unchecked privilege. Even in his support of the man, the novelist and playwright behind the article patronises Ali, and once goes so far as to describe him as "a simple and courageous, if misguided young black." He also pointedly rallies against the hypocrisy of a system that has chosen to unduly punish Ali for what, at that point, was becoming an increasingly unpopular and devastating war. "The hundreds and probably thousands of young Americans who openly declare they will not serve in the Army do not seem to be bothered unduly by any authority and are supported in their stand by senators, ministers, priests, educators, journalists, poets, and retired generals," he writes. "Justice in America, it turns out, is considerably more selective than the Selective Service."
The petition itself is a fascinating look into the widespread cultural impact that Ali was starting to develop – and one that he continued to cultivate for the rest of his life. Among the hundred names on the list are prominent black American stars like Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, and Harry Belafonte; literary giants like Truman Capote, Kurt Vonegut Jr. and Norman Mailer; sci fi master Isaac Asimov; beat giant Allen Ginsberg; pop intellectual Marshall McLuhan; and Hollywood heavyweights Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Ali McGraw. The most perplexing inclusion on the list is notorious McCarthyist villain Elia Kazan. Perhaps the most interesting of all, though, was groundbreaking baseball legend and activist Jackie Robinson, who had previously spoken out against Ali's radical renunciation of the war.
Whether the petition served any purpose beyond documenting the changing face of anti-war resistance in the America in the late '60s and confirming Ali's burgeoning reputation as a public figure and activist whose importance and skill rivaled what he displayed in the ring, is arguable. It was still another year before he was able to step back into the ring with a bout against Jerry Quarry on October 26, 1970. The rallying cry of the accompanying article's chilling conclusion remains as important as ever, though:
"Consider us as we struggle futilely with our most desperate problem. Black and white grow further apart. Day by day, the wound grows uglier. Do we do anything toward healing that wound by insisting on the last full pound of flesh from Muhammad Ali?
"After a great performance of The Great White Hope, the current play about Jack Johnson's martyrdom by white America, Muhammad Ali came into star James Earl Jones's dressing room and said 'That's me, that's about me.' To get one young man into uniform or a prison cell, are we content so to arrange matters in our own time that 50 years from now, when a new dramatist gives us a play about the tragedy of Muhammad Ali, some yet unborn black fighter can shout, in anguish, 'That's me. That's about me.'"
Just short of 47 years after that was written, the battle continues. America still struggles with its most desperate problem, and the wellbeing and very lives of black and Muslim citizens continue to be these growing pains' primary victims. One of Ali's last public acts was to speak out against Donald Trump's proposed Muslim ban. And still, as the rest of the world mourns a hero, some still demand that final pound of flesh.
Tragically, it is too late for us, as a society, to do right by the young black athlete that Shaw imagined in his piece. His and her struggles are still Ali's and Johnson's struggles. But if we truly wish to honour the Greatest of All Time's memory, we must continue to fight – much like the signatories and politicians and activists who supported him during his exile and beyond did – for the world he believed in, for as of yet unborn fighter who, 50 years from now, might finally be able to break the cycle.