The Radicalism of Muhammad Ali

Posted by Pete on Apr 29th 2019

In 1966, America's most renowned boxer refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. The backlash led to the loss of his heavyweight boxing titles, but Ali's resistance helped fuel the anti-war movement.

On 10th August 1964, the  Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed in the United States Congress. The bill, in effect, gave President Lyndon B. Johnson a blank check to launch a massive land invasion of Vietnam.

Originally, LBJ’s ‘anti-communist’ war had a solid bedrock of support in American society – the fruit of decades of Red Scare propaganda.

Across both Houses of Congress, in fact, the Tonkin Resolution received only two ‘nay’ votes – Senators Wayne Morse (D) of Arizona and Ernest Gruening (D) of Alaska.

What domestic opposition there was came from the ‘usual suspects’: the likes of students, clergymen, and pacifists.

But then, in early 1966, activists against the Vietnam War were joined by boxing’s World Heavyweight Champion – ‘The Greatest’ – Muhammad Ali.

Photo Credit: AP Photo

Above: Muhammad Ali with Martin Luther King, mid-1960s

"I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong": Ali says no

Ali, from his home in Louisville, Kentucky, got the news that he’d been drafted to fight in Vietnam. Surrounded by reporters, Ali gave his response:

"No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over."

This was ground-breaking. Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest stars of American sports in the 1960s, had refused to be drafted.

The anti-war movement was electrified.

Certainly, the slogans which the establishment used against student protesters couldn’t be turned on Ali.

How could LBJ call The Champ a ‘coward’ when he got beaten up for a living? How could the Washington Post dismiss him as ‘privileged’ when he’d been born into the hardship of the African-American working class?

Worse still for the powers-that-be, Ali was the pre-eminent sports and cultural hero of contemporary black America.

Muhammad Ali Tea Towel

Above: Our tribute to The Greatest

African Americans were inspired by his self-confident outspokenness on issues of race and political injustice, as well as his mastery of the ring.

It was bad news for LBJ, then, that Ali was now publicly against the war.

African American conscripts were the  White House’s cannon fodder, doing a disproportionate amount of the dying in Southeast Asia – if they followed Ali in rejecting the war, the US invasion might implode.

So the backlash against Ali was fierce – he was arrested for draft evasion, maligned in the press, and spied on by the FBI.

Then, 52 years ago today in 1967, US boxing authorities stripped him of his hard-won heavyweight title.

But far from deterring opposition to LBJ’s colonial military adventure, the repression of Muhammad Ali only inspired further resistance.

The Reverend joins the Boxer

Later that year, Martin Luther King publicly joined the anti-war movement.

Until then Dr King and his allies had, tactically, kept neutral on issues not specifically to do with civil rights. But now he was arm-in-arm with rebels like Ali, putting the Vietnam War on the same moral level as Jim Crow.

As MLK said at the time:

“Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all – black and brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression.”

The following year Johnson was forced from office amidst massive anti-war protests and nationwide civil and social unrest. Such civil disobedience on the home front was, in the end, crucial to forcing the American government to disengage from the war and then leave Vietnam altogether in 1975.

Ali, for his part, stayed active during his suspension from boxing, going on speaking tours of American university campuses and publicly appealing his case all the way to the US Supreme Court.

In 1971 his conviction for draft evasion was overturned, and his titles and boxing licenses were reinstated.

The whitewashing of Ali's legacy

Returning to the ring, Ali would go on another run of boxing greatness in the 1970s, winning two more titles as well as the support of the  same American mainstream which had feared and shunned him during his stand against the draft.

In 2005 Ali was even honored at the White House with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civil award – from the same government which had once dragged him through the mud and tried to take his freedom away.

Photo Credit: White House Archives

Another wartime president, George W. Bush, had many  glowing things to say about the iconic boxer, but conveniently skipped over Ali's legacy of activism and civil resistance.

Upon his death in 2016, Ali was feted with the usual tributes to sports heroes, his radical past still a mere footnote.

But at a time of renewed activism by American athletes on issues like racism and police brutality, it's worth remembering the price Muhammad Ali paid standing up for his beliefs.

It's a reminder that it wasn't just Ali's boxing talents which made him The Greatest.

Read on for more on Ali and other inspiring Radical History