Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Fighter's Biggest Bout: Refusing to Fight in America's Racist War
June 6, 2016 Bill Berkowitz / The Smirking Chimp
Once, one of the most polarizing figures in America for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War and becoming an outspoken convert to Islam, Muhammad Ali became one of the most beloved figures in America and the world.
He Was The Greatest: Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) Bill Berkowitz / The Smirking Chimp
"I came to see that I was a fighter,
and he was history."
-- Floyd Patterson,
former Heavyweight Boxing Champion
(June 5 2016) -- Once, one of the most polarizing figures in America for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War and becoming an outspoken convert to Islam, Muhammad Ali became one of the most beloved figures in America and the world.
Despite the public's antagonism, or maybe in part because of it, Ali also became an icon for young African Americans, and the anti-war and counter-culture movements. Ali was a charismatic boxing legend and courageous social activist respected worldwide for his activism battling racial inequality and social and political injustice.
Twenty years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, and at the height of both the civil rights and anti-war movements, an extraordinary meeting took place in Cleveland, Ohio.
On June 4,1967, at 105-15 Euclid Avenue, a small group of mostly high-profile black athletes, including Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten, and soon-to-be Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, came together to question, and ultimately stand with, Muhammad Ali, after the then reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world refused induction into the armed forces.
Support for Ali from those athletes was not a slam-dunk, especially from several of the men who had connections to the military. They peppered Ali with tough, probing questions. And, he responded with a humble sincerity that won them over.
Ali was stripped of his title because of his refusal to serve in the military, three years after winning the heavyweight title. He was eventually arrested and found guilty of draft evasion. Four years later, however, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.
Although he didn't spend time in prison, Ali's refusal to accept induction -- even though he was told that he would not have a combat role -- cost him some of the best years of his boxing career. The decision also earned him the anger and enmity of a vast number of Americans. At the time, he was the most polarizing man in America.
("Ali regained the heavyweight title in 1974, defeating George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle,' the Associated Press' Bruce Schreiner recently pointed out. "A year later, he outlasted Joe Frazier in the epic 'Thrilla in Manila' bout. Ali's last title came in 1978 when he defeated Leon Spinks.")
In 1967, it was a bold and risky action for black professional athletes -- none of whom were making anywhere near the huge salaries of today's professional athletes and whose careers were put in jeopardy -- to publicly announce their support for Ali.
Two years ago, Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to receive the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award. The New York Times' William C. Rhoden that mentioned the award, and reminded readers of that remarkable 1967 gathering.
"Photos from their news conference became iconic images; the moment itself would be remembered as the first -- and last -- time that so many African-American athletes at that level came together to support a controversial cause," Rhoden wrote.
One of the lesser-known athletes who stood with Ali that day was Walter Beach III. "It was an unforgettable moment," Beach told Rhoden. "It was one of the most significant moments in my life. Ali was one of the most principled and moral human beings on the planet at the time, with the sensitivity and courage to stand."
Beach added, "We met as black men around a moral and ethical issue, not as celebrity football or basketball players."
In an interview with Brown, Rhoden asked if he thought an Ali-type meeting could happen again. Brown said: "It's a slow process, but you have to educate, not alienate. I think within the next three or four years, there'll be a major coming together of some black athletes and entertainers to really have a platform that can bring about a whole different awareness."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His Conservative Watch columns document the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.