MUHAMMAD ALI AND UNCLE SAM GO TOE TO TOE—and thank God Ali had some money for the fight

“The Heavyweight Champion of the world turns my stomach…the heavyweight champion has been a total disgrace. I urge the citizens of the nation to boycott any of his performances…”
—Congressman Frank Clark of Pennsylvania

The virtual cross-the-board hatred spat upon Muhammad Ali when he refused induction into the US army in early 1966 verbally/1967 officially, remains frightening and instructive.

For the record, according to Wallace Terry’s war coverage for Time Magazine, by 1967 still only 35% of blacks and 20% of whites opposed the war.

Of 641 draft board members in Kentucky (Ali’s home state), one was black—and in the US, 31% of eligible black men were drafted compared to 18% of eligible white men, for an assortment of reasons.

Of 380 combat battalions in Vietnam, two had a black man in charge.

But the offical stripping of his title in the Spring of 1967 for what he had done is even more fascinating—and more instructive (the always integrous World Boxing Association had already stripped his title in 1964 when he declared himself to be with the Nation of Islam).

What Ali did, they said, shamed boxing (of all things!), and was a disgrace and a bad example to children and everybody else and left Ali, according to the commissions, unworthy of keeping the title he had earned.

Nearly all of the popular press agreed in spades, with giants like Jimmy Cannon leading the verbal lynching. This is referring to Ali joining the Nation of Islam:

“The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings, has been the red-light district of sports. But this is the first time it had been turned into an instrument of mass hate [Jack Johnson must have slipped Cannon's mind—of course that was the other way around—institutionalised hate]

…In the years of hunger during the depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are exploiting Clay. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion.”

I’ve come to think that religion deforms that beautiful purpose of religion, but maybe I’m a pessimist.

What is revealing is the fact that so many of these writers of the free press hit Ali in a way that they’d never hit the Establishment for all the brutality, segregation and injustice to blacks (over centuries, let alone with the Civil Rights Movement in full motion).

By 1969, opinion on the Vietnam Invasion had started to at least shift in America towards Ali’s favour (as Bertrand Russell, of all people, said it would). But the boxing commissions still refused to give Ali his license back (or drop the pending five year prison sentence or give the man his passport).

But Ali’s legal team had hired a young defense lawyer by the name of Ann Wagner.

What she uncovered was a revelation and a shock to Ali’s team, and instructive to any observer about race, power, the justice system, and knowing one’s place (see the labour movement from the 30s).

In the wonderfully laid-out Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay versus the United States of America, Bingham and Wallace write, pg 230:

“In the course of [Wagner's] research, she discovered 225 convicted felons who had been granted boxing licenses by the commission in the past. Of these, ninety had committed murder, armed robbery, sodomy and rape.

And, since Ali had been charged with a military offense, Wagner produced fifteen cases of men convicted of military crimes, such as desertion or assaulting an officer, who had also been granted licenses.”

After over three years, with the likes of even Walter Cronkite admitting Vietnam was bound to be a stalemate (“and that’s the way it is”), and thousands of American soldiers dead, and millions of Vietnamese dead, Ali’s license to be a boxer was reinstated.

“That draft dodger will never fight in my state, period, [but kill all the Indochinese you want, exclamation mark].”
—Ronald Reagan

What a fascinating world, and what a word freedom is. Wishing you great freedom, inside and out.

Pete xo


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