It took an all-white jury of six men and six women just 21 minutes of deliberating to return a guilty verdict against Muhammad Ali in 1967.
On this date in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the heavyweight champion’s conviction for violating the United States Selective Service laws by refusing induction for military service during the Vietnam War. Stripped of his title and still referred to as Cassius Clay in legal proceedings, Ali faced five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, the maximum for the felony.
After declaring himself a conscientious objector to war on religious grounds as a member of the Nation of Islam in 1966, the attention Ali received from the federal government intensified. During his trial and appeals while out on the $5,000 bond he posted, he remained shunned from the boxing world and a target of government surveillance.
While assisting with research for Jonathan Eig’s newest book, Ali: A Life, I was fortunate enough to sift through Ali’s recently released FBI files dated 1967-1969 — although some documents go as far forward as 1974 — which specifically relate to the draft. Buried among the hundreds of procedural documents and mundane internal memos are some historical gems rarely seen or seldom mentioned when discussing the greatest boxer of all time.
Ali’s official conscientious objector form
Dated February 28, 1966, Ali detailed on a four-page form the reasons that qualified him to be a conscientious objector, as well as the names and locations of mosques “known to [him]”, the names of people who could vouch for his sincerity and his beliefs about violence in general. Multiple times, he denied the name Cassius Clay and called it his “Slave Name,” signing his “RIGHT NAME” as Muhammad Ali where it was required.
With two options from which to choose for identifying himself as exempt from war, Ali selected the second, more detailed option, which stated he was “conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form” as well as “participation in noncombatant training and service in the Armed Forces.” His beliefs kept him from partaking in “war when not ordered by Allah”.
5. Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe in the use of force?
Only in sports and self defense
Dear Mr. President
These particular FBI files included hundreds of letters sent to Presidents Johnson and Nixon and their respective Justice Departments — some praising Ali and asking for action in his favor but most castigating him for evading the draft when the young men in their lives stepped forward to serve.
Some were respectful, while others let their racist feelings fly. The milder letters called him a “slacker” and sarcastically a “super-patriot”.
But one stood out among the others. Signed as “Concerned Black Students” from Madison, Wisconsin with individual names at the bottom, the July 1967 letter asked the Justice Department to drop the charges against Ali and to investigate discrimination by the Selective Service System, among other demands.
As a department noted for its racist complaisance through inaction, you have shown remarkable vigor in the prosecution of this particular case. Are we to conclude from our observations that the Justice Department is “Johnny-on-the-spot” only when the American power structure is threatened, but not when the lives of Black people are in mortal danger?
Skiing is “the greatest”
Attached to a March 1970 letter to the federal government demanding to know why Ali was not imprisoned is an Associated Press photo of him on skis in Vermont. Although it’s just the cutout, according to the Burlington Free Press, the photo is from 1970.
MLK applauds Ali
Among several newspaper clips that appear to track media coverage of Ali’s actions in the late ‘60s is a 1967 Muhammad Speaks article about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. praising the fighter’s draft refusal.
“Every young man in this country who believes that this war is abominable and unjust should file as a conscientious objector,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said.
Praising the stand of Muhammad Ali, he went on, “He is giving up even fame. He is giving up millions of dollars in order to stand up for what his conscience tells him is right.”
Ali’s Broadway debut
While exiled from the world of boxing, Ali spoke at universities and religious events across the country. But he also starred in a short-lived musical in 1969 called Buck White. Noted in newspaper clips in his file, the play was met with mixed reviews.
According to one article, “Clay Is Still a Champ In 1st Broadway Bout”:
Clay doesn’t appear until the show is half over—but when he does he takes charge in amazing fashion. Although he portrays a black power leader, he doesn’t shout, rant or threaten. He is a big man, of course, but he rules with uncannily quiet power. He speaks most clearly and he sings surprisingly well, particularly in a black narrative titled “We Came in Chains.”
But the New Jersey paper The Daily Home News headlined the review “‘Buck White’ Packs Lil’ Punch”:
In the second half of the evening Clay sings in a thin and unsteady voice…
At the end of the play he gets to talk to the audience in at last a real and honest way. He is no longer trying to act (in fact he seems to have just about had it with the Afro-wig and beard) and he seems a decent human being preaching a philosophy he earnestly believes in. …
But the stage never really rocks, never really involves, not even when an obviously planted white racist asks properly inflammatory questions. This turns out to be the show at its silliest when the racist, too, bursts into song.