By William Boardman, Reader Supported News
09 June 16
"No Viet Cong never called me n-word."
-- Muhammad Ali
like Robert Lipsyte, Howard Cosell, Dave Anderson, and others). Some of the hate still shows in the grudging tone of some postmortems, and perhaps as well in the general downplaying or omission of what was arguably Muhammad Ali's greatest victory, his unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in Clay v. United States. The case emerged naturally enough out of American racism, eventually involving imperial war and government criminality, a nexus that plagues us still.
In early 1960 Louisville, Kentucky, 18-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. dutifully went to his local Selective Service Board #47 to register for the draft. Because he performed poorly on the Army's minimum intelligence test, his classification was 1-Y, not 1-A: his government did not consider him eligible for military service. The U.S. was not at war in 1960, despite covert and not so covert military and paramilitary operations around the world, including "advisors" in Viet Nam. Cassius Clay was already a well-known amateur boxer, with 100 victories in 108 bouts and a host of Golden Gloves titles. And even though Cassius Clay won the Olympic heavyweight boxing gold medal that summer in Rome, back in Louisville he was not considered eligible for restaurant service, and people still called him (among other things) "boy."
Clay won his first professional fight on October 29, 1960, and 18 straight more after that, while taunting heavyweight champion Sonny Liston into fighting the undefeated 22-year-old. On February 25, 1964, Liston lost his championship when he refused to come out of his corner for the seventh round. At a press conference the next day, Clay announced that he had accepted the teaching of the Nation of Islam, also known as Black Muslims, and that he had changed his name to Cassius X (later to Muhammad Ali). Reportedly this announcement prompted FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to inquire into Ali's draft status.
Needing more bodies for Viet Nam, the US lowered draft standards
In February 1966, Louisville Draft Board #47 met to reconsider Clay's case in new circumstances. Muhammad Ali had long since become the world heavyweight boxing champion, defending the title twice, but they still called him Clay. Although Ali had failed the Army's intelligence test twice, the Selective Service had lowered the mental standards enough to make him eligible to be reclassified 1-A and eligible to be drafted to fight in Viet Nam. While acknowledging that Ali (whom he called Clay) had a right to appeal any reclassification, the draft board chairman said, "This is a routine thing. There just isn't any way out for him as far as I can see."
After Ali was re-classified 1-A on February 17, 1966, the wire service UPI reported it with some editorializing:
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (UPI) - Cassius Clay, the self-styled "greatest," appeared headed today for the greatest fights of his career, proving he's a good soldier and winning the public approval that eluded him after ring victories. The heavyweight champion received a 1-A classification Thursday from his Louisville draft board, making him extremely vulnerable to the Army draft and placing his March 29 title defense against Ernie Terrell in jeopardy. If Louisville's March draft quota is the same as in recent months. Clay will be in the Army before the fight, which cannot be moved to an earlier dale. If Clay is drafted, his title will be frozen until his discharge, a minimum of two years. "Why pick me?" was the immediate reaction of Clay, who was contacted at his Miami Beach training headquarters. ''Why seek me out and hold a special one and a half hour meeting on it? I pay the salaries of at least 2.000 men a year. For two fights I pay for two modern bomber jets. I can't understand why they picked me without testing meto see if I'm wiser or worser. I'm fighting in a game nine out of 10 soldiers wouldn't want to take part in," Clay added. [emphasis added]
At a press conference soon after, on a TV hookup in Miami, Ali answered questions about his situation. Recalling that event, at which he read a short poem, Ali later said: "Of all the poems I wrote, all the words I spoke, all the slogans I shouted " none would have the effect on my life or change the climate around me."
Keep asking me, no matter how long,
On the war in Viet Nam, I sing this song:
I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong ...
According to the U.S., some ministers are more religious than others
On February 28, 1966, Ali applied to the Louisville local draft board for draft exemption as a conscientious objector, based on his religious beliefs as a minister in the Nation of Islam that: "to bear arms or kill is against my religion. And I conscientiously object to any combat military service that involves the participation in any war in which the lives of human beings are being taken." The Louisville board denied his claim and he appealed to the Kentucky Selective Service Appeal Board. In May, the Kentucky Appeal Board affirmed the local board, but it also referred Ali's case to the U.S. Department of Justice for an advisory opinion. The Justice Dept. then, in effect, sought its own advisory opinion, requesting an FBI investigation (that interviewed 35 people), followed by a special hearing on Ali's "character and good faith."
On August 23, 1966, Ali petitioned the appeals board directly for draft exemption, asking the board to re-classify him as a conscientious objector as a minister of the Lost Found Nation of Islam.
That same day, a retired federal judge presided at the Justice Department's special hearing on Ali's character. Hearing officer Lawrence Grauman reported his conclusions to the Justice Dept.: that Ali had stated his views "in a convincing manner, answered all questions forthrightly," and was "sincere in his objection on religious grounds to participation in war in any form." Judge Grauman recommended that Ali be granted conscientious objector status.