Wednesday, June 12, 2019
June 12, 2019: Boxing and America: Ali and the Draft
[On June 13th, 1935, underdog boxer James “Cinderella Man” Braddock won a stunning upset decision over heavyweight champion Max Baer. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that story and other ways in which this complex sport reflects American histories. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the undisputed champs in the realm of boxing films!]
On what led up to a pivotal 1967 moment, what it changed, and why it still matters.
From the first moments of his professional boxing career in 1960 (when he was only 18 years old), Cassius Clay was known as much for his brash and bold attitude and statements as for his dominating performances in the ring. Apparently inspired in part by a fortuitous conversation with professional wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, Clay consistently used press conferences and interviews to belittle his opponents and boast of his own prowess. While his 1964 name change to Muhammad Ali was driven by his personal spiritual conversion to Islam and evolving relationship with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, Ali nonetheless used that occasion to make similarly striking statements about American history and society, calling Cassius Clay “my slave name” and arguing that “I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” Given these statements, Ali’s announcement two years later, when notified that he was now eligible for the draft (after having previously failed the army’s qualifying test), that he would pursue conscientious objector status and refuse to be drafted, and his remark that “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” represented one more step in this outspoken life and career.
Yet while that 1966 announcement, and Ali’s subsequent April 1967 draft resistance and arrest in Houston, were thus not at all unprecedented, they nonetheless produced significant, lasting shifts in his career and image. On the one hand, Ali’s courageous stance cost him four years in the prime of his career and athletic prowess—his boxing licenses were stripped by every state after the arrest, and Ali was unable to obtain a license or box professionally again until the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Clay v. United States upheld his conscientitous objector status and overturned his conviction. Given the relatively short window in which a professional boxer can generally stay viable in the sport, it’s difficult to overstate the value (financial and otherwise) of this lost time in Ali’s career. At the same time, Ali shifted much more overtly and fully into the status of an activist and public intellectual over those years, giving speeches across the country along the lines of his 1967 “Black is Best” speech at Howard University (a speech given in support of the university’s Black Power movement, an alliance that Ali not coincidentally formed during this same period of his career). I don’t mean to suggest that such speeches or events in any direct way compensated Ali for his lost time or success as a boxer; instead, it’s more accurate to say that Ali’s public image and role shifted over these years, and that shift would endure long after both his 1971 reinstatement and 1981 retirement from the sport.
Ali’s enduring role as a late 20th and early 21st century public activist thus provides one important reason to remember the moment when he began to make that shift in earnest. But I would also argue that Ali’s 1967 civil disobedience offered a profoundly distinct model of athlete activism than any that had come before. There had of course been athletes whose very identity and public image represented a challenge to national and white supremacist narratives, such as Ali’s boxing predecessor Jack Johnson. And there had been those like Jackie Robinson whose groundbreaking sports careers themselves became a form of activism against the racist status quo. But to my knowledge, Ali’s draft resistance and his statements in support of that position took athlete activism in America to a new, much more publicly engaged level, one far beyond any sports-specific context. A more public form of athlete activism that quite possibly influenced the following year’s Olympic Black Power salute in Mexico City, and that certainly is worth linking to a contemporary example such as Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing protests and public activisms (and the shocking level of vitriol Kaepernick has received in response, from within the NFL just as much as outside of it). In all those ways, Muhammad Ali’s 1967 act of civil disobedience was a watershed moment in American society as well as its sports culture.
Next boxing day tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other boxing stories or histories you’d highlight?