Recalling Muhammad Ali’s Vietnam War Resistance in the Age of Trump

tags: patriotism, Charlottesville, Trump, Muhammad Ali, Vietnam War Resistance

David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He has written many pieces for the magazine, including reporting from Russia, the Middle East, and Europe, and Profiles of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, Mike Tyson, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, and Benjamin Netanyahu. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

When Muhammad Ali died, in June, 2016, Donald Trump tweeted, “A truly great champion and a wonderful guy. He will be missed by all!” Alert readers recalled that, just six months earlier, Trump had tweeted this: “Obama said in his speech that Muslims are our sports heroes. What sport is he talking about, and who? Is Obama profiling?”

Perhaps this was meant to stand as evidence that Trump is in possession of a mind unblessed by coherence or knowledge. Or possibly it meant the opposite—that Trump knows precisely what he is doing, that he is willing to say absolutely anything that will, in the moment, work in his perceived interest, and to hell with all else. This perceived self-interest is almost certainly the reason for his ugly outbursts in recent days directed at African-American athletes. Hatred, pitting one group against the other, is his political instrument. He envisions his base, on couches and stadium bleachers, booing the likes of Steph Curry, Colin Kaepernick, and LeBron James. And he believes that the numbers are with him.

And so it’s a good moment to recall the events of a half century ago. When Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and when he later refused the call of the military during the war in Vietnam, he was not universally cheered. Hardly. Ali was not prepared to give his life, or kill Vietnamese, on behalf of a society that barely valued his life or that of his fellow-black men and women. Or, as he put it, “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? . . . If I thought the war was going to 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 for my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

On April 28, 1967, at the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Ali, standing beside twenty-five other nerve-wracked young men called to the draft, refused to respond to the call of “Cassius Clay!” He said no, and was sentenced to five years in prison and released on bail. Boxing authorities quickly stripped him of his championship title and suspended his license to box in New York State. He was twenty-five years old, deprived of his livelihood.

Trump’s hollow post-mortem gesture of affection notwithstanding, Ali was hardly greeted by overwhelming praise. He was denounced by some of the most revered sportswriters and editorialists of the time. An editorial in Sports Illustrated said, “Without his gloves on, Ali is just another demagogue and an apologist for his so-called religion, and his views on Vietnam don’t deserve rebuttal.” David Susskind, a popular television host, called him “a disgrace to his country,” who “will inevitably go to prison, as he should,” and “a simplistic fool and a pawn.” Tragically, even Jackie Robinson, who had endured so much for the simple right to play baseball for the Dodgers, condemned Ali. “He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam,” Robinson said. “And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.” ...

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