1967 - Muhammad Ali wouldn’t go to war for a country that didn’t value black lives
OnApril 28, 1967, Muhammad Ali refused induction at the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Texas, with a line that would become famous: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he told reporters. The boxer declared conscientious objector status that day, though it wasn’t really a surprise. He’d become outspoken about the vicious racism black Americans faced and saw their conscription as an absurd addition of insult to injury. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform,” he said, “and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?…I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
Ali was “easily the most famous person to refuse to serve in Vietnam thus far,” wrote Bob Orkand, who was drafted into the war while a senior at Columbia University and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, in a 2017 New York Times opinion piece. “And he did so for reasons that spoke directly to the complex social upheavals of the time. Because America treated its black people as second-class citizens, the champ said he’d stand his ground by refusing to serve in its Army.” He went even further, saying “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Of himself and fellow soldiers fighting in Vietnam, Orkand writes, “We didn’t like his antiwar speeches, but we weren’t sure he was wrong, either.”
Ali issued a statement linking his refusal to his religion, saying, “It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. I do so with the full realization of its implications. I have searched my conscience.”
He was stripped of his heavyweight title and his passport, and was banned from fighting in the U.S. In 1971, a Supreme Court decision overturned Ali’s conviction, but he’d already lost three years at his peak. The decision to claim conscientious objector status was one that altered the course of his career.