No single post on Long Row has ever drawn more interest in one day than “Muhammad Ali and the real draft dodgers — our fathers.” Hundreds responded on June 4, the day after Ali’s death. No other post is even close.
The post, published five years ago (June 23, 2011), also generated more comments than any other. All of those comments were critical of the post and painted Ali as a coward and a draft dodger. One comment called the author an “idiot.”
Few other people in the world could draw that kind of visceral interest. Ali was special. He was controversial. He was hated and loved. There seemed no middle ground.
The gist of Long Row‘s post was a defense of Ali as a military-draft dodger. Ali was one of a few black men to stood up to a white-dominated society and, I wrote, much of the antagonism against Ali was due to white-hot racism.
To many young Americans, Ali’s plight is ancient history. They have little interest in the long-ago. Or even yesterday, it seems. Here, for some who may years from now stumble onto these pages, is brief history of those times.
Already the world heavyweight boxing champion at a time in the 1960s when social issues and racism were at a peak, Ali refused to be drafted into the military on April 28, 1967, as the unpopular Vietnam war heightened. He had recently joined the Muslim religion, changed his name from Cassius Clay and claimed he was a “conscientious objector.”
Some Ali quotes at the time infuriated whites and scared blacks.
“I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he was quoted as saying about America’s enemy. “No Vietcong ever called me ‘nigger.'”
“Why me? I buy a lot of bullets, at least three jet bombers a year and pay the salary of 50,000 fighting men with the money they take from me after my fights.”
In no time, Ali was stripped of his championship and convicted of draft evasion. He waited in limbo for 3 1/2 years — losing the prime years of his boxing career, ages 26-29 — until on appeal the Supreme Court court reversed the lower court on June 28, 1971. Ali was granted draft status as a conscientious objector.
An uproar followed. Even now almost 50 years later, the seething hatred of Ali is palpable. And misplaced.
I grew up during that era and remember many draft-eligible young men, most of them white and middle class, finding a more “acceptable” way to avoid the draft and the fight in Vietnam. They got college deferments. To me, they are the real draft dodgers. No one mentions them today as racism again sweeps the land. These guys were our fathers,siblings, friends and acquaintances.
Ali all his life stayed true to his religion. He proved a devout Muslim.
As long as there is racism in America, Ali will receive an undeserved black eye. That means a very long time indeed.