In 1966, five years into the conflict with 382,010 men conscripted that year, Ali publicly refused to be drafted. Years before he had shed his birth name Cassius Clay and converted to the Nation of Islam, a religion that opposed participation in the political process. This was a year before Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King would speak out publicly against the war. By refusing to serve, he was convicted of draft evasion, which carried a five-year sentence in addition to denying him his boxing license, charging a fine and stripping his passport. His popularity also suffered, viewed as a radical by many Americans. For three years, instead of fighting in the ring, he fought his sentence in the courts, thereby losing years of his prime. The conviction was eventually overturned in 1971 and he returned to boxing, regaining the heavyweight title. His views against the war had anticipated not only King and other civil rights leaders feelings about the conflict, but also the shifting American stance which by 1971 viewed the war dubiously.
Ali’s opposition to Vietnam might be his most famous example, but his commitment to his values and beliefs permeated his actions throughout his life, which earned him the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage in 1997. Even after his retirement from boxing, he continued to work as an activist: helping to bring back 15 hostages from Iraq in 1990, visiting with war-mutilated children in a refugee camp during the Liberian Civil war in 1997 and contributing humanitarian aid on many occasions around the world. Additionally, he was a tireless advocate for Parkinson’s research, raising money and speaking publicly and before Congress about the disease. While Ali’s status as a boxing champion is undeniable, he will be equally remembered for his myriad contributions outside the ring.
Read more about Muhammad Ali’s life and significance:
- Chas Danner uses video clips to look at the poetry of his words
- Derrick Jackson discusses how he affected history at The Undefeated
- Al Jazeera examines his impact on the Civil Rights movement
- Joyce Carol Oates writes about him at the New York Times
- David Remnick at the New Yorker reflects on his life