On May 8, 1967 Muhammad Ali was indicted by a federal grand jury for refusing to serve in the U.S. military over his opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Two weeks earlier, in response to a reporter’s question about Ali’s opposition to the war, he stated:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform 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?
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 is the day when such evils must come to an end.
I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here.
I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.
I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
Writes Dave Zirin in What’s My Name, Fool? –
Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam was front-page news all over the world. In Guyana, there was a picket in support of Ali in front of the U.S. embassy. In Karachi, young Pakistanis fasted. A mass demonstration was called in Cairo, Egypt.
On June 19, 1967, an all-white jury in Houston passed judgement on Ali. The typical sentence for refusing to serve was eighteen months. Ali got five years and the confiscation of his passport. He immediately appealed. Ali, undefeated and untouched, was stripped of his title, beginning a three-and-a-half-year exile from the ring.
One group that deeply understood Ali’s significance was the U.S. Congress. The day of his conviction they voted 337-29 to extend the draft four more years. They also voted 385-19 to make it a federal crime to desecrate the flag. At this time, 1,000 Vietnamese noncombatants were being killed each week by U.S. forces. One hundred soldiers were dying every day, the war was costing $2 billion a month, and the movement against the war was growing. Ali’s defiance was far more than a footnote to the movement. As one observer remembered, “He made dissent visible, audible, attractive, and fearless.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Muhammad Ali’s conviction in 1971 on a technicality.