Muhammad Ali’s longest and most significant fight occurred outside the boxing ring. He was one court decision away from going to prison for five years for refusing induction into the U.S. Army.
Citing his Muslim beliefs, Ali invoked religious reasons while expressing opposition to the nation’s widening involvement in the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali said.
Ali declared himself a conscientious objector in 1966 when he became eligible to be drafted. He refused to step forward when his name was called on an army base in Houston in April 1967. Even before his trial, he was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission and other governing bodies of the sport and stripped of his heavyweight title by the World Boxing Association. An all-white federal jury convicted Ali on the draft evasion charge and he was sentenced to five years and fined $10,000. Lower court appeals all were denied.
But the Supreme Court’s unanimous reversal of the conviction in 1971 ended a nearly four-year battle and became a profound moment in American history.
Thomas Hauser, who authored a biography on Ali, wrote, “Ali had become a living embodiment of the proposition that principles matter. His power no longer resided in his fists. It came from his conscience.”
Ali became an acquired taste for mainstream America. “There was a lot of noise and confusion but not a lot of understanding of his motivation,” Georgetown professor of anthropology Orin Starn said. “The great patriotic tradition is to go off and fight wherever the Stars and Stripes call you. For somebody to say, ‘I’m a conscientious objector’ on religious reasons, ‘I’m not going to go to fight in Vietnam,’ was something most people didn’t know what to make of.’’
Then-NAACP legal defense attorney Jonathan Shapiro was part of Ali’s legal team for the final appeal to the high court.
“It was a lifesaving thing for Ali and the country,” Shapiro, 76, said Saturday from Boston, where he heads the firm of Shapiro, Weissberg & Garin. “This was one of the most famous athletes in the world and the notion that our government would prosecute him for this. His success for standing up for his principles before the assembled might of the government was huge.
“Politically, it made a great statement coming at a time when our participation in the war in Vietnam was almost at its height. It validated the views of people who opposed the war. It also made an important statement that the kind of political oppression that many believed Ali had been subjected to could be opposed.”
Shapiro’s writ of certiorari, which asked the Supreme Court to review all documents used by the lower court in rendering its decision, was successful and Ali’s case moved to the high court.
“I thought that we had a very strong case,” Shapiro said, “but on the other hand, it was a very political case.
“The court was faced with the fear of [ruling] that Black Muslims who could conscientiously object to participation in the war would somehow say they’re all conscientious objectors. What the court did was to find a ground on which they could reverse the conviction without having to decide that issue.”
The winning point for Ali, Shapiro said, was the court’s contention that the draft board did not say why it had turned down Ali’s request for an exemption — be it religious, opposition to the war or a lack of sincerity in his beliefs.
Ali never joined the anti-war movement but became a symbol of growing opposition as his case dragged on. “Ali was the one beacon of hope,” Northeastern University professor of law Roger Abrams said. “There are lots of people who decided they simply did not want to participate, but no one of any public stature until Ali . . . The country changed, and he was right up front.”