It is almost an expectation in the age of social media that no matter how revered you are, no matter how influential, no matter how iconic, even the death of a man like Muhammad Ali will have among his many mourners a backlash of celebrants all but rubbing their hands together with glee upon hearing the news. For Ali, the accusation of being a “draft dodger” seems to be the favored ad hominem of trolls and bigots alike, but they’re easy enough to ignore.
A recent article published by Daniel J. Flynn at Stormfront Lite – I’m sorry, I mean Breitbart – outright calling Ali a hypocrite for refusing to be drafted is much less easy to ignore. Unlike the common troll online, Breitbart has a much larger audience.
Ali is most famous in the ring for a particularly dodgy style of boxing. With the build of a heavyweight and the speed of a much lighter man, Ali earned the right to dub himself “the greatest of all time” by thumbing his nose at the long-accepted rules of boxing. He would bounce around on his feet, he would dip and duck, he would pull his head back, he would keep his hands down. When Ali was inside that ring, he became an artful dodger, to quote Dickens.
That stopped once he was out of the ring. It was in the global arena where Ali never dodged.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a dodge is defined as “a clever or dishonest trick done in order to avoid something.” Draft evasion has had a long history in America, going back to when the Confederacy passed the first conscription act in April, 1862. In October, the Confederacy added an exemption for slave owners from the draft called the “Twenty Negro Law,” leading to widespread desertion by men like Newton Knight who said, “If they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.” It wasn’t until the Vietnam War that the term “draft dodging” became popularized as a pejorative for those who fled to Canada or burned their draft cards to avoid being sent overseas, even though there were more draft-dodgers during World War II than there were during the Vietnam War.
The pejorative “draft dodger” does not apply to Ali in the slightest. He tackled the issue head on, publicly, and made a point of refusing to “dodge” the draft, as Breitbart and many others allege. “I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead.”
Even after his appeal to his local draft board on conscientious objector status was rejected, Ali still showed up for his induction rather than run to Canada. When his name was called out, he refused to step forward three times, even after an officer told him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Ali again refused to step forward, and he was stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association and of his boxing license by the New York State Athletic Commission that same day. Ali’s very public decision was not without consequence. He was denied a boxing license to fight in every U.S. state and denied a passport to fight in other countries, effectively barring him from having a steady source of income. Ali was convicted by an all-white federal grand jury on June 20th, 1967 for draft evasion. He had to take speaking engagements at college campuses for the next three years he spent appealing the case (i.e. taking the legal process) just to keep the lights on in his house and afford money for gas and groceries. It wasn’t as if Ali was “living the high life in a mansion while others died in the jungle,” as Breitbart so snidely alleges.
Ali’s refusal to be drafted and his decision to fight his draft in court was incredibly risky. Had the Supreme Court not ruled in his favor on June 28th, 1971, finding his objections to being drafted on moral or religious grounds to be valid, Ali would have gone to prison. He probably would never have been able to box again. He put his career and his freedom on the line, and was vocal about his willingness to go to prison on multiple occasions. Whatever you want to call what it was Ali did – courage, bravery, gumption, brass balls – he never “dodged” a damn thing.
It’s telling that Martin Luther King sent Ali a telegram saying, “I look forward to talking with you sometime in the future.” Ali gave his famous quote “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger” a full year before Dr. King stood in front of 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4th, 1967 and said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.” Then King proceeded to give his Beyond Vietnam speech. It was precisely Ali’s outspokenness against the Vietnam War that encouraged Dr. King to come out publicly against the war, as he previously feared alienating Lyndon Johnson’s administration and losing their support in the fight for civil rights.
But it was not Ali’s opposition to the draft that Breitbart, or others, take issue with.
The heart of this backlash lies not in Ali being an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, but in his being an outspoken black man. It’s why Breitbart highlights Ali’s brazen quotes about “white slave masters,” and why the article’s writer felt the need to bring up “Southern white policemen” who taught Ali to box. In actuality, it was one Southern white policeman: Joe Martin, a civil rights activist who didn’t seem to take issue with Ali’s refusal to be drafted considering both men stayed in contact until Martin’s death in 1996. It’s why the article’s writer brings up Ali’s “overwhelmingly white audience of fans [that] made him a millionaire by packing arenas.”
Not only is this “bite the hand that feeds you” criticism patronizing as hell, it brings up a long history of a narrative where common black people have no voice to complain about injustice and prominent black people with a voice are expected to shut up and entertain white people. If Ali’s white fans took such issue with Ali’s outspokenness, they could have boycotted his fights. I hear Beyonce’s making a pretty penny on selling “Boycott Beyonce” T-shirts.
It was never the draft-dodging white people took issue with. It was Ali’s words. He certainly had as much impact with those as he did with his fists – arguably moreso.
So, let’s stop calling what Ali did “draft dodging” and start calling it exactly what it was: Protesting.