Why President Trump Ought Not Pardon Muhammad Ali
President Donald Trump, we are told, is thinking "very seriously" about pardoning the late boxing great Muhammad Ali. While the move may have some useful public relations advantages, it further inflates a mythic balloon that should have been punctured a long time ago.
In early 1966, with the conflict in Vietnam escalating, Selective Service lowered the bar to include those whose mental aptitudes were in the 15th percentile or higher. That meant Ali. He was not pleased. He immediately had his attorney apply for a deferment based on the financial hardship it would cause his parents, but the request was turned down. Ali was reclassified 1-A.
The New York Times' Robert Lipsyte was with Ali in Miami when he first heard the news. "How can they do this to me?" Ali griped. "I don't want my career ruined." Throughout the day, meanwhile, his ever present Nation of Islam (NOI) retainers filled his head with the likely horrors of Vietnam, horrors visited not by "Charlie" as in the V.C., or Victor Charlie, but by Mister Charlie. "Some white cracker sergeant is gonna put a shank in you," Ali heard over and over again in one variation or another.
Finally, after a day's worth of mind games from his friends and phone calls from reporters, Ali sounded off: "Man, I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." Out of this one chance comment, mindless and peevish, planted by the Muslims, inspired by a little more than a looming inconvenience, a mighty legend was born.
In 1966, journalists, especially the sports journalists, still took patriotism seriously. Almost to a person, Ali's behavior offended them, even the liberals among them. Most athletes felt the same way. "I can't help wondering how he can expect to make millions of dollars in this country," said World War II veteran Jackie Robinson, "and then refuse to fight for it."
In 1966, Ali was swimming against the tide of popular opinion. His decision to resist the draft cost him a good deal of fan support and some serious endorsement money. Fifteen years later, a more reflective Ali would tell Sport magazine that his "biggest mistake" ever was coming out against the war "too early."
Still, he persisted. The Nation of Islam had tightened its grip, and Ali had little room to maneuver. In March 1966, Ali's attorney again appealed for reclassification, and this time he added a wrinkle: Ali was a conscientious objector on religious grounds. The request was denied.
In August 1966, Ali got to make his own case for reclassification before an administrative judge. Under oath, he testified that true Muslims like himself "could not participate in wars on the side of nonbelievers." The judge overlooked the bellicose history of Islam and contended that Ali was "sincere in his objection on religious grounds to war in any form."
The Justice Department was not quite so naïve. Its attorneys argued that political and racial considerations inspired Ali's opposition to the war. The Kentucky Appeals Board sided with the Justice Department. The mythmakers who portray these decisions as racist or reactionary miss the obvious. "I don't think the Nation of Islam was a religious organization at all," confirms Malcolm X's daughter, Attallah Shabazz.
Publicly, NOI leader Elijah Muhammad kept his distance from Ali on the subject of the draft. A World War II draft-resister, he made a point of telling the press, "Every one of my followers is free to make his own choice."
Legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell insists that on the question of the draft, "Ali bent neither to pressure nor friendly overture," but then he quotes Ali one page later as saying, "Can't talk to you no more, not without Elijah's permission." Cosell comments, "This was simply further evidence of the degree of control the Muslims exercised over him."
Ali surely respected Muhammad, but that respect had to have been tinged with fear. He had seen what Muhammad could and would do to his enemies – the murder of Malcolm X comes quickly to mind – and he did not want to become one.
When faced with the draft, Ali chose the least frightening option. There was little courage involved, less principle, and no sign at all of independent thought. He was not "his own master," as his wife Sonji lamented. Ali belonged heart and soul to what Malcolm X had sadly concluded was a nation of zombies – "hypnotized, pointed in a certain direction and told to march." Ali marched right up to the edge and jumped when ordered.
An encounter with boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson illuminates his state of mind in early 1967. When Ali was in New York for the Zora Folley fight, his last before the exile, he called Robinson and asked if he could come see him at his midtown hotel. Robinson obliged. Ali wanted to talk about the Army.
"You've got to go," said Robinson, referring to the U.S. Army.
"No," Ali answered, "Elijah Muhammad told me that I can't go."
Robinson explained the consequences of his refusal, and Ali answered, "But I'm afraid, Ray. I'm real afraid." When Robinson asked if he were afraid of the Muslims, Ali refused to answer. "His eyes were glistening with tears," Robinson reports, "tears of torment, tears of indecision."
Despite the uninspiring dynamics of his resistance, Ali gave what liberal biographer Mike Marqusee calls a "major boost to the anti-war movement." Ali's status as heavyweight champion removed some of the stigma attached to resisters as being unmanly or cowardly. Even more important, he helped dispel the "lily white image of the movement."
The more insightful of Ali's observers understood that the young whites were redeeming Ali as he was redeeming them. In an article written for the British Guardian, biographer Thomas Hauser acknowledges that the antiwar movement saved the young Ali from the "ugly" mood of the Nation of Islam just as Ali was adopting "the Nation's persona and its ideology."
Without meaning to, Hauser gives away the game. He argues that "when the spotlight turned from Ali's acceptance of an ideology that sanctioned hate to his refusal to accept induction into the US Army, Ali began to bond with the white liberal community, which at the time was quite strong."
Here the Ali myth was born. Had Ali not become an antiwar symbol, he never would have become a symbol of racial healing, either. Ali's manic racial ideology had unnerved the white liberal community. Even after his rejection of the draft, old-school liberals continued to despise that ideology. The young antiwar left, however, proved much more flexible, and as Hauser admits, this faction was "quite strong."
The man dictating Ali's narrative did not make a very convincing pacifist. From the first days of his involvement with the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad had been preaching and prophesying the violent destruction of the white race. In the years leading to World War II, he had plotted to make that happen. And more recently, he had laid the groundwork – at the very least – for the murder of Malcolm X and for the intimidation and assault of other dissidents. The media, the broadcast media in particular, chose not to know. They still don't want to know.
Jack Cashill is the author of Sucker Punch: The Hard Left Hook That Dazed Ali and Killed King's Dream.