I was reading baseball posts the other day on azcentral.com, the digital version of the Arizona Republic newspaper. The Diamondbacks lost a home series to the White Sox, and I was enjoying the banter of fans, their despair, their unrealistic expectations. Then I ran across this post by someone using the handle, Rasputing:
“Once again the Arizona elitists require all of us to pay allegiance to our country’s greatest draft dodger, Muhammad Ali. What do the rich and powerful care if we are a country at war. Their sons and daughters don’t fight our wars anyway.”
Apparently Ali, the former heavyweight boxing champion, had attended Sunday’s game, and the stadium camera briefly homed in on him. I wasn’t there, but I imagine he received a hearty applause. He always does wherever he goes.
The post generated a half-dozen or more responses, some pro and an overwhelming number against. Strangely, it turned out to be the baseball game’s most popular topic on the message board.
“Your life must suck,” one poster responded.
Isn’t that something? I thought. A single event that happened in 1967, more than 44 years ago and mostly forgotten, triggering such anger. And yet some Americans can not turn it loose. They remember Ali as dodging the draft and refusing to fight in the Vietnam conflict.
For starters, Ali was not a draft dodger. He was a conscientious objector for religious reasons. Three years before, in 1964, shortly after winning the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, the then-Cassius Clay announced he was now a Black Muslim and was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. When called up for the draft in ’67, Ali claimed he was a minister for the Nation of Islam and his religion did not allow him to war in Vietnam.
He did not help his cause by saying he had nothing against the U.S. enemy, the Vietcong, and bringing racism into the arena. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” Ali was quoted as saying. But he was a black man and had come of age in the South. Not long after winning a 1960 Olympics title for the U.S. boxing team, he was refused service at an all-white restaurant in his home town of Lousiville, KY. He soon tossed his gold medal into the Ohio River, so the story goes.
After his refusal to be inducted into the Army, Ali was arrested, convicted, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. He appealed the decision and never served time. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court over-turned the conviction.
So here we have a man, Ali, who openly stood up to the system, was stripped of his boxing title and was not allowed to fight for almost four years, a situation that cost him millions of dollars. He paid the price no matter how much anyone disbelieves the sincerity of his religious claims.
But who were the real draft dodgers, evaders and resisters? They were our fathers. They were our uncles and brothers. Even our sons. Mostly all white men who feared the bullet, who didn’t want family and career disrupted.
Some were “Kennedy Husbands,” those who rushed to the altar for last-minute marriage when news that JFK’s policy of low draft status for married men was about to be rescinded.
They were the many who quickly joined the National Guard to avoid deployment in Vietnam. One meeting a month, two weeks at summer camp, a little more income. Out of harm’s way. Let others do the fighting.
There were those like Bill Clinton, the former president, who was in school in England and joined the R.O.T.C. There were others who suddenly grew interests in academia and attending college — so they could receive a draft deferment. Some exaggerated physical and psychological disabilities and became undraftable. There was pressure brought on draft boards by parents and their political allies. All, not to mention 8,000 deserters during the Vietnam years. But Muhammad Ali is the one most often fingered for guilt.
Ali, if you look at it under a certain light, was a hero of his time even beyond boxing. He did not avoid the draft by hiding behind technicalities and lies. He didn’t leave the country. His motives, at least on the surface, were far more noble than most others who now, unlike Ali, can sit back in comfort and never have the word “draft dodger” thrown at them. And yet in reality they were draft dodgers. Legal draft dodgers.
Do you know what your daddy’s draft status was in the Vietname era? Really know? There is something at work here with those who still rage about Ali and Vietnam. They screamth too much.
It all smacks of hypocrisy and racism.