Writing Assignment on Muhammad Ali and the Draft
When most people think of the 1960s, images of civil rights activists and anti-war protesters immediately come to mind. One commonly thinks of Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Black Panthers, for example. At the same time, provocative photographs of burning draft cards and violent confrontations with the police also form a large part of America’s historical memory. The case of Muhammad Ali and conscription reflects these wider issues of war and peace and racial justice, but from a different angle that allows you to use your larger historical imagination to better understand the tensions underlying American society in that contentious decade.
Let us go back to the late 1960s, when the federal government felt obligated to prosecute a celebrity draft evader, the Nation of Islam passionately advocated for their most prized recruit, Stokely Carmichael defended a man he called “hero,” who through his refusal to serve dramatically raised the profile of the growing anti-war movement (especially for Black Americans), patriotic American Legion members urged boycotts of Ali prize fights, traditional white establishment sportswriters heaped scorn upon the young heavyweight champ, and Ali, took a courageous and costly principled stand against a war that he could not in good conscience join.
Drawing on all the sources below, explain the issues surrounding Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight, his refusal to be drafted for combat during the Vietnam War. Having read chapter 25 of Foner’s Give Me Liberty, which provides a foundation for understanding social protest and antiwar sentiment during the 1960s, read the following articles from the Washington Post (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. and New Yorker (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. for more background about Muhammad Ali and the draft. Then consider the following sources—videos, primary documents, and newspaper and magazine articles—as you work through the assignment.
The sources below are arranged around five personas, two of which are fictional composites, that represent five different constituencies/perspectives about the controversy. While they are hardly conclusive, they should provide plenty of context for you to construct a historical argument about the incident and its larger social and political meaning. With all that in mind, here is your prompt:
Drawing on all the sources below, explain the issues surrounding Muhammad Ali’s “greatest fight,” his refusal to be drafted for combat during the Vietnam War. Consider the historical context and the various perspectives of the five personas. Why was his decision met with such hostility? How did the controversy both reflect and shape larger social struggles, both in the civil rights and antiwar movements, as well as beyond? What does Ali’s struggle tell us about American society in the 1960s? In short, why is Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali so important?
Your paper should be a four-to-five page typewritten (1250 words, double-spaced) analysis of the issue. A good paper will consider these questions and provide evidence from the various sources and/or your textbook to support your answer. The essay is due Monday, April 22nd. You will be penalized ten points for every calendar day that your paper is late. Note that without the paper, you will not have completed all of the requirements for the course, and will therefore be ineligible for a passing grade. Please be sure to keep a draft or copy of your paper until it is graded and returned.
While grading is primarily based upon your understanding and critical analysis of the sources, form will also be taken into account. In addition to typographical errors, check carefully for spelling and grammatical mistakes. Pages must be numbered. With regard to formatting, use standard one inch margins and a 12 point font. Times New Roman is the preferred typeface. And remember to cite direct quotations. As a rule they can be valuable in underscoring a point, but avoid lengthy and excessive quotations: they are boring. As for form, you can cite your work with either MLA or Chicago styles, as long as you are consistent. Finally, do not plagiarize. No credit will be given for dishonest work.
In early 1966, Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, received his draft notice like most American young men during the Vietnam War. Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte was present and recorded Ali’s now famous response, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” This seditious remark, and Ali’s refusal to cooperate, set off a firestorm of invective from sportswriters and politicians as well as a groundswell of support from black nationalists and anti-war protesters. Ali’s decision would lead to a protracted legal battle that would eventually cost him more than three of the best years of his fighting career. Moreover, his case would soon encapsulate much of the social and political tensions of the 1960s, including racial conflict, anti-war activism, and the youthful rebellion that challenged authority in all of its manifestations.
Despite sincere efforts from his former Louisville patrons to arrange for a term in the National Guard service or some service-related boxing activities that would have kept him completely away from the jungles of Vietnam, Ali refused. To him, this was a matter was a principle, which gave his resistance a sharper edge. According to Ali, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand 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 he added, “If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
Ali’s struggle with the United States government would temporarily derail his athletic career. His state boxing licenses and even the heavyweight title were stripped away shortly after his initial refusal. While he became a pariah to the traditional boxing establishment and much of mainstream America, Ali emerged as a courageous hero for those who agreed with his opposition to an increasingly unpopular war. As a result, a sports hero was transformed into a national, in truth an international, champion of his people. Indeed, by the 1980s, Muhammad Ali was the most recognizable man on the planet.
Ali’s battle over the draft unfolded on a crowded national stage occupied by increasingly militant civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr. and his newfound outspoken criticism of the war as well as the emergence of the Black Panthers, a rising and well-organized opposition to the war on college campuses, and an often chaotic youth-inspired rebellion against all things associated with mainstream America. While Ali’s case wended its way through the courts, Americans struggled to make sense of the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots and urban upheaval, and increasingly violent antiwar protests culminating with the tragedy of Kent State in 1970. Thus an examination of Ali’s story through the words of its key players and constituencies tells a larger story of America during the tumultuous 1960s.
Five Biographical Sketches:
Muhammad Ali – Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in 1942, Ali became the pride of Louisville as an Olympic gold medal winner in the 1960 Rome Olympics. In February 1964, Ali defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Shortly afterwards, he became a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam. Within the year, he adopted the name Muhammad Ali.
Stokely Carmichael, former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)– SNCC was a college-based civil rights movement inspired by Martin Luther King and founded in 1960. SNCC launched the sit-in movement to integrate lunch counters and other public facilities, staged voter registration drives in the South, and grew increasingly militant as the decade unfolded.
Mainstream American Sportswriter – A white traditional American journalist who is typically critical of Ali to the point where he continues to refer to him as Cassius Clay. For him, Ali, long before the draft issue, represents all that is wrong with a country in transition. He sees Ali as a defiant and outspoken black man who does not know his place and challenges authority on every level.
American Legion member – A forty-six year old veteran who lost a leg at Iwo Jima during World War II. He spends every Saturday afternoon at the American Legion Hall in Kenosha, Wisconsin. His son attends the University of Wisconsin and is a member of the Students for a Democratic Society. He supports Ali’s opposition to the draft much to his father’s chagrin. To have a good sense of the Legionnaire’s disposition, think of the Silent Majority and pro-Nixon hard hats reacting to student and anti-war protests.
Erwin Griswold, Solicitor General representing the United State Government in Clay v. The United States – As a Harvard-educated Solicitor General for both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Griswold was the embodiment of the American establishment. With a nation at war, he must defend the United States’ interest in its power of conscription.
Sources for the Five Biographical Sketches:
Sources for Muhammad Ali:
Muhammad Ali and the Vietnam War (three video excerpts and one newspaper pdf)
Muhammad Speaks, April 21, 1967 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.
This pdf may come out too small for a thorough read. But reading the headlines and images will provide enough of the perspective of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam.
Sources for Stokely Carmichael:
Stokely Carmichael on racism and the Vietnam War (two video excerpts and two documents)
The U.S. Government Has Deceived Us”
SNCC Position Paper on Vietnam, Bloom and Breines, eds., “Takin’ it to the Streets,” 184-85
This fascinating document is a North Vietnamese government propaganda piece that quotes some of Carmichael’s anti-war statements as well as a reference to Ali’s draft opposition. This was intended for distribution among American service men in the south with the intention of eroding morale.
Sources for the American Mainstream Sportswriter:
These three websites offer reflections on how sportswriters thought about Ali’s career, especially regarding his conversion to Islam and resistance to the draft. They are relatively short and offer good perspective on changing historical perceptions. One is from the Washington Post (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Another from slate.com (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. And a final summary frompublication for boxing fans (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site..
Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon on Muhammad Ali
New York Journal American, February 22, 1966
Sources for American Legion Member:
These two documents represent views that a typical American Legion member might hold in the 1960s. The social and political context which informed his service in WWII is radically different from the one in which the Vietnam War unfolded.
U.S. Representative Frank Clark, Democrat, Pennsylvania, on Muhammad Ali
Congressional Record, March 15, 1966, p. 5580
U.S. Representative L. Mendel Rivers, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Democrat, South Carolina
New York Times, August 26, 1966
Sources for Ernest Griswold:
While these documents were not written by nor quote Griswold directly, they clearly describe the government’s case against Ali (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. that Griswold argued as Solicitor General in 1971.
“Ali is no Pacifist, U.S. Tells Court”
Edward B. Fiskes, New York Times, April 20, 1971
“Ali Wins in Draft Case Appeal”
David E. Rosenbaum, New York Times, June 29, 1971