Muhammed Ali

Muhammed Ali

By:  Jim Barton


I wrote earlier about Muhammed Ali.

The portion regarding his draft status case generated a comment in disagreement from a friend and former shipmate which gave me an opportunity to explain my view. It is embedded in my earlier post but I wanted to bring it here to the forefront because I think his case is thought-provoking and is one in which I changed my view over time. I think it is relevant as we think about this public figure. Mind you my intent is not to change or agree with your own views but here is mine:

Ali did not run and he stood his ground. He knew the consequences. I do not now regard Ali any differently than I do American Quakers who neither serve on the front lines or in support if they claim conscientious objector (C.O.) status.

And I respect Joe Louis. But the comparison has nothing to do with Ali’s principles. Each, in my opinion, should be respected as boxers and as men for their fighting prowess and for certain of their principles.

Here is the chronology:

Ali converted to Islam just after the 1964 Liston fight. In 1967, he refused to be drafted and cited his religious beliefs and asked for C.O. In that sense, he was a just like the Quakers who were granted exception from the draft. But Selective Service and the Army refused. Why? One can only guess. he was tried in the press and his position mocked and ridiculed.

Given the fact that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, which by many was feared and seen as an Enemy of the State, the government prosecuted him and found him guilty without explanation. He was stripped of his title and he did not fight for four years, his prime.

He appealed and lost, and that appeal made its way to the Supreme Court which overturned the verdict in 1971; but the path toward that decision is interesting, something I studied at Georgetown University in 1989 and wrote about as a landmark case during my Constitutional Law class.

It went like this:

Initially, the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-3 against Ali during a conference. Then the justice assigned to write the majority decision, John Marshall Harlan, changed his vote after a clerk gave him a book (The Autobiography Of Malcolm X) to read that made Ali’s religious convictions clear. Harlan realized Ali had deep-seated religious convictions that made him a true conscientious objector. He changed his initial vote

That left the court divided at 4-4 and they reconvened. Justice Potter Stewart ,in his own separate research, convinced the other justices that the lower courts never explained why they turned down Ali’s appeals nor did they really consider the basis. The SCOTUS could have remanded this back to the Appellate Court but they did not.

Eight justices hearing Ali’s case about his draft status voted 8-0 and changed the verdict. Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case due to his prior role as Solicitor General. It doesn’t get more unanimous than that and is a case study in how the SCOTUS actually did its job unlike the political SCOTUS of today.

Ali made a couple of statements which I thought were noteworthy and showed the content of his character.

The first came after he was convicted. He said in 1967, “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice. 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.”

The second came after the SCOTUS decision and Ali was asked if he was going to sue to recover damages for missing so much of his boxing career. He responded, “No. They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right,” he said.

It doesn’t get better than that. That was a man of principle.

The Ali case formed the basis for a significant body of legal literature in the years which followed as Ali was the last member of a peaceful religion to face draft evasion charges by the US government.



The author is a retired career US Navy Surface Warfare Officer whose assignments at sea include duty in all Line Departments in the Destroyer and Auxiliary Forces up to and including command of a Frigate. Ashore he served in key national policy positions on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations