His refusal to serve wasn’t motivated by conscience, but by fear of being killed by the Nation of Islam.
In April 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali —then still known to many by his birth name, Cassius Clay —reported to Local Board No. 61 in Houston for induction into the U.S. armed forces. The 25-year-old heavyweight champion spent the morning filling out forms and receiving a physical exam. In the afternoon, when his name was called, he did not step forward. He wrote down his reason: “I refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States because I claim to be exempt as a minister of the religion of Islam.” He meant the Nation of Islam, the black separatist organization headed by Elijah Muhammad, also known as the Messenger.
Ali was swiftly convicted of draft evasion, a felony. Remaining free while his lawyers pursued appeals, he became a generational flashpoint—a reliable gauge of political views on the Vietnam War.
For every athlete who wishes to “make a statement” today, and plenty do, no exemplar looms larger than Ali. He paid a steep price for his stand: Spurning due process, boxing commissions stripped him of his title and banned him from the sport for 3½ years. This meant losing millions of dollars in the prime of his career.
In 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Since then he has become a venerated figure, thanks to his greatness in the ring, the magnetic force of his personality, the broadly accepted narrative about the folly of Vietnam, and the liberalization of American culture. His death last June prompted a weeklong commemoration, with funeral ceremonies befitting a head of state. Ali, we were told, had been right all along in his principled opposition to the war.
The truth, though hard to make out under the thick moss of mythology, is that Ali refused induction not out of principle but from fear of disobeying Elijah Muhammad, who had stipulated that the champ not serve in a “white man’s war.” (Muhammad had done jail time himself for resisting the draft during World War II.)
“You just don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it,” Ali said, and he saw what happened to people who tried. Malcolm X, who had been close to Ali, was assassinated in February 1965. After Ali’s former press secretary told the FBI that he had information about Malcolm’s killers, he too was found dead. Other dissidents simply disappeared.
Ali got the message. In March 1967, a month before his appearance at the draft board, Ali told his boxing idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, he couldn’t join the army.
“Elijah Muhammad told me that I can’t go,” Ali said.
“You’ve got to go,” Robinson replied.
“I’m afraid, Ray,” Ali said. “I’m real afraid.” He had tears in his eyes.
“If you ask me,” Robinson said later, “he wasn’t afraid of jail. He was afraid of being killed by the Muslims.”
Nearly a decade later, Ali told reporter Dave Kindred : “I would have gotten out of [the Nation of Islam] a long time ago, but you saw what they did to Malcolm X. . . . I can’t leave the Muslims. They’d shoot me, too.”
It speaks volumes that Ali was more willing to face jail time than the Messenger’s wrath, especially since, by his own admission, the government had offered him “all kinds of deals.” Military brass neither wanted him in combat nor wished to see him become a draft resister. He would have served in a ceremonial capacity, as Joe Louis had in World War II, visiting and entertaining troops. The federal prosecutor who handled the case sensed that Ali was ready to sign up for a noncombat role, but that “some of his advisers wanted to make a martyr out of him.” They succeeded.
It is not the only irony of Ali’s life that his submission to Elijah Muhammad’s authority somehow transformed him into a hero of freethinking and moral conscience. Yet he deserves credit for handling himself with magnanimity and élan. The fair-minded can sympathize with his quandary: searching for meaning in segregated America, he found the wrong answers, and discovered his mistake only when it was too late.
Had Ali chosen more wisely, he might have become a unifier, like Louis, whose entire career, especially his service in the Army, brought Americans together. By contrast, Ali’s refusal to serve helped deepen America’s racial and political divisions. He hurt himself and achieved no social good in doing so. His retroactive canonization doesn’t change these stubborn realities.
Understanding the Ali story in this way, one feels less inclined to celebration than to sorrow. It is commonplace to see the tragedy of Muhammad Ali’s life as coming in its second half, when he was stricken with Parkinson’s. The defining tragedy came earlier. That the events in Houston are now so broadly acclaimed—and distorted—suggests that the tragedy is not his alone, but ours.
This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal
Paul Beston is managing editor of City Journal.