We generally don’t think of boxing champion Muhammad Ali closely identified with Martin Luther King Jr. Certainly, they were national figures admired by many for their leadership and the most visible black leaders of their time. They were also brave heroes by speaking out at a time when other national prominent figures were silent or whispering their doubts about the wisdom of pursuing the Vietnam War.
On April 4th 1967, King delivered his first public antiwar speech at New York’s Riverside Church. Two weeks later, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army in opposition to the war.
They both paid dearly for taking such a stand. At the time when they both stood up and declared that our democracy had gone astray and the injustices within our own nation could not be addressed without acknowledging that our nation was playing a similar role overseas. It was not a popular position and at that time it was considered blasphemous; public support of the Vietnam War was at its peak — in the first three months of 1966, the war’s approval rating was over 50 percent, according to Gallup.
Ali was immediately stripped of his heavyweight title, which he had just won. Within two months he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He was at the peak of his career, he could have gone quietly and worked out some arrangement with the military, but he was not going to be a tool. Instead, he became a hated public figure and spent the next four years of his life battling for his beliefs in the courts.
King received a rebuke from the press, with the New York Times claiming that King’s protest against the war was “wasteful and self-defeating” and likely to be disastrous for both his civil rights and his anti-war efforts.
The Washington Post said his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people had been diminished, and those who had listened to him would never again be confident in his judgement. He did not spend his time in the courts, like Ali, but he was assassinated one year to the day after he gave that speech.
Now both have passed away and many will praise their fortitude in pursuing the principle of justice upon which our democracy was founded. Nevertheless, our praise will be shallow unless we recognize that to honor the bravery of the dead should encourage us to be brave ourselves in the pursuit of justice.