This article originally appeared at The Rag Blog.
Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, was convicted by a U.S. federal court in Houston on June 20, 1967. Above, he is shown when refusing induction at the Houston draft board, April 28, 1967. At his right is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.In an era defined by endless war, we should recognize a day in history that won’t be celebrated on Capitol Hill or in the White House. On June 20, 1967, the great Muhammad Ali was convicted in Houston for refusing induction in the U.S. armed forces.
Ali saw the war in Vietnam as an exercise in genocide. He also used his platform as boxing champion to connect the war abroad with the war at home, saying, “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?”
For these statements, as much as the act itself, Judge Joe Ingraham handed down the maximum sentence to Cassius Clay” (as they insisted upon calling him in court): five-years in a federal penitentary and a $10,000 fine. The next day, this was the top-flap story for The New York Times with the headline, “Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison.”
The sentence was unusually harsh and deeply tied to a Beltway, bipartisan consensus to crush Ali and ensure that he not develop into a symbol of anti-war resistance. The day of Ali’s conviction the U.S. Congress 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. Their fears of a rising movement against the war were well-founded.The summer of 1967 marked a tipping point for public support of the Vietnam “police action.” While the Tet Offensive, which exposed the lie that the United States was winning the war, was still six months away, the news out of Southeast Asia was increasingly grim. At the time of Ali’s conviction, 1,000 Vietnamese noncombatants were being killed each week by U.S. forces. One hundred U.S. soldiers were dying every day, and the war was costing $2 billion a month.Anti-war sentiment was growing and it was thought that a stern rebuke of Ali would help put out the fire. In fact, the opposite took place. Ali’s brave stance fanned the flames.
As Julian Bond said,
[It] reverberated through the whole society… [Y]ou could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People who had never thought about the war before began to think it through because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.
Ali himself vowed to appeal the conviction, saying,
I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in this stand — either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth must eventually prevail.
Already, by this point, Ali’s heavyweight title had been stripped, beginning a three-and-a-half-year exile. Already Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam had begun to distance themselves from their most famous member. Already, Ali had become a punching bag for almost every reporter with a working pen.
But with his conviction came a new global constituency. In Guyana, protests against his sentence took place in front of the U.S. embassy. In Karachi, Pakistan, a hunger strike began in front of the U.S. consulate. In Cairo, demonstrators took to the streets. In Ghana, editorials decried his conviction. In London, an Irish boxing fan named Paddy Monaghan began a long and lonely picket of the U.S. Embassy.Over the next three years, he would collect more than 20,000 signatures on a petition calling for the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title.Ali at this point was beginning to see himself as someone who had a greater responsibility to an international groundswell that saw him as more than an athlete.
Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.
Eventually justice did prevail and the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction in 1971. They did so only after the consensus on the war had changed profoundly. Ali had been proven right by history, although a generation of people in [Southeast] Asia and the United States paid a terrible price along the way.
Years later, upon reflection, Ali said he had no regrets.
Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war. Then, after the rich man’s son got out of college, he did other things to keep him out of the Army until he was too old to be drafted.
As we remain mired in a period of permanent war, take a moment and consider the risk, sacrifice, and principle necessary to dismantle the war machine. We all can’t be boxing champions, but moving forward, all who oppose war can rightfully claim Ali’s brave history as our own.
[Dave Zirin is the author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love (Scribner) and just made the new documentary Not Just a Game. Receive his column every week by email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was also posted at The Nation blogs. Read more articles by Dave Zirin on
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Like the successive rebellion that would erupt 24 years later, the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 was deeply rooted in racism, poor living conditions and unequal access to goods and services. The apparent industrial prosperity that made Detroit the “Arsenal of Democracy” masked a deeper social unrest that erupted during the summer of 1943. The KKK was active in the region and riots had already broken out in other cities.
Before and during World War II, workers migrated north to seek factory employment in such vast numbers that Detroit was incapable of adequately receiving them. Because black Detroiters were still treated as second class citizens, they suffered disproportionately from wartime rationing and the overall strains on the city. Factories offered employment but not housing, and because whites violently defended the borders of their segregated neighborhoods, black residents had little choice but to suffer in repulsive living conditions.
Detroit’s 200,000 black residents were marginalized into small, subdivided apartments that often housed multiple families. They were crammed into sixty square blocks on the city’s east side, an area ironically known as Paradise Valley.
Because there was simply no space left to expand upon already existing African American neighborhoods, the city attempted to construct a black housing project in what was otherwise a white neighborhood. A mob of more than one thousand whites, some of whom were armed, lit a cross on fire and angrily picketed the arrival of their African American neighbors.
Black workers faced virulent racism on the job as well. In June of 1943, white workers halted production to protest the promotion of their African American co-workers. Other factories faced habitual slowdowns by bigoted whites who refused to work alongside African Americans. Humiliation and resentment on each side spilled over into all facets of Detroiter’s wartime struggle and by the early 1940s, racially motivated street fights were common.
On June 20, 1943, more than two hundred black and white individuals engaged in racially-motivated fighting on Belle Isle. Though police quelled the violence by midnight, tensions soared and later that night, two rumors led to incendiary action on both sides. African Americans at the Forest Social Club in Paradise Valley were told that whites had thrown a black woman and her baby off of the Belle Isle Bridge. They formed a furious mob and moved near Woodward, breaking windows, looting white businesses and attacking white individuals.
In a nearby area, angry whites had gathered after hearing that black men had raped a white woman near the same bridge. Around 4am, a mob of white men formed outside the Roxy Theatre on Woodward. When the movie let out, black men exiting the theatre were surrounded and beaten. As word of both incidents spread, so did the violence.
Gangs of each skin color roamed the streets, with Woodward as their dividing line. White mobs overturned cars owned by blacks and set them on fire and beat black men as white policemen looked on. A white doctor was beaten to death while making a house call in a black neighborhood. African American community leaders pleaded for Mayor Edward J. Jeffries to call in help from national troops. It was not until white gangs entered Paradise Valley that the Mayor responded by seeking assistance from President Franklin Roosevelt.
Violence was curbed by the arrival of 6,000 army troops in tanks armed with automatic weapons. The streets became vacant around midnight, with most residents too terrified to leave their homes. Nine whites and twenty five African Americans were killed in the Riots of 1943. No white individuals were killed by police, whereas seventeen African American died at the hands of police violence. 700 people were reportedly injured, with damages amounting to two million dollars.