Muhamad Ali was a great fighter and a nice person. In 1964, I was a skinny 15 year old in my attic lifting weights. One night I listened to the Clay-Liston fight on my transistor radio, all the while rooting for Clay, since I thought he kind of boxed the way I did at the social club where I hung out. I was pleased that he won and thought he would be a great fighter. It turns about that was an understatement. He was a truly great fighter. His greatness in the ring brought him fame and fortune.
In July 1966, I joined the United States Army. In 1966 Clay, now Muhamad Ali, and mentored by the white -hating Malcolm X, failed to answer for the draft after being re-classified 1-A from a previous classification of 1-Y (fit for service only in a time of national emergency), based upon his low IQ of 78.
Some of his comments surrounding his refusal to be drafted, racial issues and his religion:
"My enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong". In relation to integration, he said: "We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don't want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don't want to live with the white man; that's all."
And in relation to inter-racial marriage: "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters." Ali's religious beliefs at the time included the notion that the white man was "the devil" and that white people were not "righteous."
"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father.... How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."
"War is against the teachings of the Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers."
So at the height of the Vietnam War buildup, as I and my friends were volunteering for service Ali was refusing, based upon his religion that demonized white people, and that included a spokesman who suggested that Blacks gain their rights "by any means necessary."
I spent my basic training at Fort Leonard Wood Missouri, with draftees and volunteers, many African Americans from Chicago and Detroit. Many of those men served with honor and many never returned. As a conscientious objector he could have served in a non-combat role such as a medic. Interestingly, two conscientious objectors received the Medal of Honor for their heroism in the Vietnam War.
Ali was stripped of his titles and license yet he still fought in other countries like Canada. In 1971 the Supreme Court reversed his conviction on what was essentially a technical matter. He went on to a storied career while many African Americans never had that opportunity and many gave the ultimate sacrifice and lie buried with honor. There were rumors that his money was being drained from him by the Nation of Islam and that he fought some of his later fights, realizing he was not fit to fight, only to regain some money.
Fast forward to 1979. I was a police officer working a one -person car in the 003rd District and was assigned to go to a grammar school at 73rd and Jeffrey to assist a visit by Muhamad Ali at the school. Muhamad Ali and his small entourage were congenial and gracious. The students absolutely adored him. Being the only White individual there I felt no animosity form him or his group, and as he addressed an assembly Ali even kidded me all about being the only White guy around and it was all good-natured and all in fun and I left enjoying the encounter and experience.
I think after his illness and as he got older maybe his views moderated. As for me, I still believe he was one of the greatest fighters who ever lived. I still think he was a unique character and a great father who loved his family. He also supported many charities. Those days in the '60s were unique times that need to be put in context. Now the President writes a page -long tribute to Ali who he describes as "The Greatest. Period." I think that could apply to a lot of people who go unrecognized by those in such high office, including those who served with honor, recognizing their duty to give back for the freedom they enjoyed. Not always a perfect freedom, but greater than experienced in almost any other country on earth.