Muhammad Ali: A Profile in Moral Courage

“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong – no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

With those pointed words, Muhammad Ali explained his opposition to the US war in Vietnam and justified his refusal to submit himself to the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector. After declining three times to step forward for induction into the US Armed Forces in April of 1967 in Houston, Texas, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion was arrested, stripped of his title and state boxing licenses, and thrown into a three-year legal battle ending with his exoneration (on technical grounds) by the US Supreme Court.

No one ever seriously doubted the physical courage of Muhammed Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky). An Olympic gold medalist and winner of eight Golden Gloves titles, he became the youngest man ever to unseat a reigning heavyweight boxing champion at 22.

Clay, named after a Kentucky planter who became a crusader for the abolition of slavery, converted to Islam and changed his name shortly after that 1964 technical knockout victory over Sonny Liston. He was fearless in the ring (perhaps forever “the greatest,” as he called himself and came to be called by others). He went on to become professional heavyweight boxing’s only three-time world champion, winning the title in 1964, 1974 and 1978.

But his singular act of MORAL courage – a prominent black American at the pinnacle of youthful fame, standing firm against an immoral war in the face of disapproval from World War 2’s “Greatest Generation,” head unbowed to forced military service more than a century after his nation put an end to formal chattel slavery – remains by far his greatest legacy.

His stand rang the opening bell on a generation’s resistance to war and conscription and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., who had hesitated to oppose civil rights supporter Lyndon Baines Johnson on the subject, to come out against the war in Vietnam.

Nor did Ali’s peace activism end with his draft resistance. In 1991, he traveled to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of American hostages, and in 2002 he visited Afghanistan as a “UN Messenger of Peace.” The Ali Center established the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards in 2013 to honor those who make “significant contributions toward securing peace, social justice, human rights, and/or social capital in their communities and on a global basis.”

Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 74.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism. He lives and works in north central Florida.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism. He lives and works in north central Florida. This article is reprinted with permission from William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.

24 thoughts on “Muhammad Ali: A Profile in Moral Courage”

  1. The full quote by the Greatest of All Time:

    “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
    and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home
    to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the
    domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.
    This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned
    that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have
    said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is
    here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a
    tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom
    and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and
    equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d
    join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So
    I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

  2. RIP, Greatest!

    Am I the only one sickened by the Obama play-act public mourning of a man he’d have imprisoned for taking the central moral stand of the day?

  3. As a Muslim he was a Christian Muslim that preached love As Christ preached love . This man was the greatest and pretty too .

  4. His was an act of moral courage. And it was a demonstration of character.

    Character is having the courage to accept moral responsibility and accountability for one’s own actions.

    The core of all character lies in individuality. Character is a moral fact: and, until life is individual, it is not moral. And by individual we mean something single, separate, and alone, that cannot be accounted for from outside, cannot be grouped under any general laws, cannot be extracted out of outside conditions. Its actions must spring from out of itself. It is this seal of individuality which it sets on everything that comes out from it, which makes it a character. Sometimes it stamps it weakly, and then we say a person has little or no character; or sometimes it stamps it forcibly, and then we say, “That is a man of character.”

    – Henry Scott Holland, Creed and Character, 1887

    Never base a moral choice on its popularity. Always do what you know is right; even if that decision draws hostility from others. Even if you see no possibility of personal profit from it. Even if you are forced to stand alone against everyone else you know; do it anyway.

    Especially if you must stand alone; that is exactly when you must. It takes no courage to join a lynch mob.

    The world badly needs examples of moral courage, character, like that of Muhammad Ali … we lost huge.

  5. And then Ali does a very stupid thing: He accepts allah, who makes war, injustice, poverty, ignorance, murder of gays/unbelievers, belittlement of women.

    For all the good Islam does, it may have been better for Ali’s personal life to have accepted yahweh or even jesus and see what would happen to him.
    Of course, we could also expect that christians would have not defended Ali as they did kim davis when she disobeyed the govt even tho Bible, Rom 13:1 commands christians to obey all of them [yes, communist/socialist also, but God didn’t know such govts would ever rise].

    1. I did expect that the above post might be blocked or deleted.
      I note i used one label in the above post: I labeled “stupid” Ali’s acceptance of allahic faith.
      Mea culpa!! But i did debate whether to or not to label Ali’s act!

      Don’t know much if anything about quran. I read it a decade ago, but only parts of it, and i decided to stop reading it. I felt very troubled/hopeless just reading parts of it.

      Allah also is a God of war, but i do not know if allah commands all islamists to obey all governments.
      Suppose it does? Then, all islamists would have to have condemned Ali’s disobedience to US government.

  6. Loud-mouthed jerk Cassius Clay degraded boxing and American culture. He was a racist and a buffoon.

  7. He really didn’t have to worry. His IQ measured 78. Much too low for military service. If he had been taken it would have been for Special Services boxing exhibitions. So where exactly does his bravery lie? He was not smart enough to understand how he was being used by Malcom X and that lot for their own purposes. Mr. Clay was ripe pickings for any cult. He would have not known the difference between Jim Jones and Rev Wright or an Island obiah princesses. .

  8. Not at all. Any of the stooges praising someone who, at one time, and at great personal risk, opposed their inane policies, is sickening. They can not act out in revenge due to the celebrity status of the recipients of their praise.

  9. Interesting. You complained yesterday about your comments not showing up, and I replied that I hadn’t seen them. At that time, none of them were listed in moderation, either. Then this morning they finally showed up, 22 hours old. Why the delay? I have no idea. I approved the one substantive comment, and am approving/replying to this complaint. I deleted the “test” comment as duplicative.

    If you want to be “outta here,” that’s your business. You’ve proven over time that you’re untrustworthy — that you’ll comment with reasonable normality for a while, until you think you’re not longer being watched, before jumping into the hate speech sewer. You get busted and banned every time, and every time you come back a few weeks later and try it again. I’m lenient enough to let you play out as much rope as you want to before hanging yourself again, but not so lenient that I’m going to give you unmoderated access to pollute Antiwar.com at will. If you want trust, try earning it.

    1. As expected, you throw at me a lot of ad hominems.
      In a way i am very glad that i am persecuted on antiwar; tho, by just one individual. Over the years, i received very few nasty ad hominems on Antiwar.

      You response proved me right!!!

      1. Yes, that’s something I’ve noticed over the years — bad actors tend to have persecution complexes and every time their bad actions get them into some kind of trouble, they blame everyone but themselves and what they did. By all means carry on. You don’t have to like the rules. They’re the rules whether you like them or not.

        1. I don’t want you to preach me your psychology. I always leave psychology to psychologists, even to the american ones and american priestly classes.

          I cherish only one rule: never ever label people either euphemistically or dysphemistically.

          Labeling has no protreptic value of any kind; it is always used to intimidate and/or hurt others.

          So, I’ll stay on Antiwar and if you find me labeling people or even what people say/think, you can then erase that post or ban me.
          Is that the deal?
          Not erasing even one of my posts?
          If not, i want you to tell me if you accept my generous offer to you and Antiwar!

          1. bob and Thomas, there are others watching to see to what level this charge of hate speech amounts.

          2. Setting aside the fact that your construction doesn’t make any sense as written … there is no “charge” of hate speech.

            This is not a courtroom. There is no jury with a power to bind my actions. You don’t have to like me doing my job. I’ll do my job whether you like it or not.

            When Bob engages in hate speech, I don’t let it through (or if it gets through, I delete it). When he does so often enough that it becomes more trouble than it’s worth to mess with, I ban him. A few weeks later he sneaks back in and I pretend not to notice until he starts in again.

  10. “I did expect that the above post might be blocked or deleted.”

    All of your posts (at the Antiwar.com blog — it may be different at other parts of the site) are blocked until such time as I approve them. Was there some part of that you didn’t understand?

  11. Am I the only one sickened over Americans trying to elevate Ali to a higher standard than the thousands of other little people who dodged the draft?

    This speaks loudly to the fact that Americans haven’t come to terms and to accept what all those thousands did for all the good reasons they had. Americans obviously have to think of draft dodging in other terms that ascend to being palatable, as is the case with Ali.

    Ali! Just one more draft dodger. A claim to fame shared by thousands! But not the claim to fame he would seek in my opinion.

    1. In fairness not only did Ali have a lucrative career he was throwing away but to come back from prison & a ban from boxing to be the heavyweight champion of the world while providing a voice for draft dodgers is a pretty amazing feat.

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