The great boxer Muhammad Ali was many things. He was a champion, a peacemaker, an activist, and a pacifist. But you may not know the full story of his greatest stand, which was as a conscientious objector.
When the Vietnam War was in full swing, the boxer was due to be inducted into the U.S. army. So in April of 1967, he arrived in Houston at an army induction center. A gaggle of press awaited him, waiting for the newsworthy quotes he was known to give at press conferences.
In 1965, two years earlier, he had stated, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. Shoot them for what?” So it wasn’t exactly a surprise that Ali planned to refuse to enlist. When he was called forward by his birth name, Cassius Clay, the boxer refused to step forward to be inducted. A Muslim convert, Ali determined that war was against his personal conscience as well as his Islamic beliefs.
As a consequence of his refusal, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing license. Later that year in June, he was charged by a jury of treason and sentenced to five years and a large fine. While his lawyers worked on his appeal, Ali became a civil rights icon. Since he couldn’t box, he visited university campuses and spoke on pacifism and civil disobedience.
Describing the situation he found himself in, Ali said, “Either go to jail or go to the army. But I would like to say that there is another alternative. And that alternative, that alternative is justice. And if justice prevails, I will neither go to the army nor will I go to jail.” Ali was widely hated, or revered, as politics and racial tensions divided the nation.
Ali’s conviction was eventually overturned. History now reflects Ali as having transcended the boxing ring and become an icon of the war resistance movement. Muhammad Ali met hatred and violence with peace and conviction, transforming America in the process.