Being the heavyweight champion of the world didn’t exclude Muhammad Ali from the draft during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967 — but it didn’t mean he was going to go willingly.
Famously stating publicly “no Vietcong ever called me n*gger,” Ali refused to be inducted into the Army.
He would be indicted by a grand jury for his refusal, and while his case wound its way through the appeals process — to the US Supreme Court, which would take over three years — he was denied boxing licenses in every state and stripped of his passport.
While unable to fight for those years, Ali would speak at schools across the nation, denouncing the war and advocating for racial justice.
While Ali lost those years as a fighter — from age 25 to 29, generally considered the prime of a boxer’s life — he didn’t let that stand in his way.
Once the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in October of 1970, Ali was already on the comeback trail, having been issued a license in August to fight Jerry Quarry, whom he defeated.
He would eventually go on to regain his heavyweight title, defeating George Foreman at the Rumble in the Jungle in October 1974. – AJW
Muhammad Ali protests the Vietnam War: Last plea denied – Ali’s induction slated today
Harrisonburg Daily News Record (April 28, 1967)
Houston — “I am ready to die for my religion,” heavyweight champion Cassius Clay said Thursday after a US District Court denied his appeal that the government be restrained from taking criminal action if he refuses military service.
Denial of a temporary injunction plea — the last legal action before Clay’s scheduled induction Friday morning — was made by US Dist Judge Allen B Hannay after a 3 1/2 hour hearing before a packed courtroom.
Clay, arguing he is a practicing Black Muslim minister under the name of Muhammad Ali, thus will be forced to go before authorities on Friday.
If he declines to take the one step forward — as insists he will decline — he faces a penalty of $10,000 fine or five years in prison, or both. Prison is the usual procedure.
Clay, whose pleas against the draft have been turned down twice by the US Supreme Court, spent close to an hour on the stand, telling of his conversion to the Muslim religion and his activities as a preacher of the faith.
“I am going to die a Muslim,” he insisted. “They don’t think I’m serious. I will show them that I am.”
Clay said there was nothing in his religion to prevent his appearing at the induction ceremonies, undergoing the physical and mental formalities and filling out the usual forms.
“But when I step forward symbolizing I am in the Army, that is in conflict to my Muslim faith. I would be a hypocrite if I did it. I will go to jail first.”
The heavyweight champion said he expected to be stripped of his championship and probably denied opportunities to continue his fighting career.
Clay’s attorneys, Hayden Covington of New York and Quinnan Hodges of Houston went before Judge Hannay, a 75-year-old veteran of the bench, with an appeal that the government be restrained from taking criminal action against their client when he refused to accept military service.
They argued that Clay — or Muhammad Ali — was exempt as a practicing minister and that he had been discriminated against because no Negroes were on the original Houston draft board and the Houston board of appeals which heard his case.
Covington announced that he would refile immediately his lawsuit challenging the entire structure of the national Selective Service system.
US Atty Morton Susman asked that the case be thrown out on grounds that courts in Kentucky and the US Supreme Court previous had ruled against Clay.
“Busloads of people are coming here from all over the country,” Clay said. “But I don’t want any demonstrations. I don’t want you to suffer just because I am suffering.”
Susman has said that Clay would not be arrested at once, and it might take 30 to 60 days to start criminal prosecution against him. Others say it’s possible to drag out these procedures for as much as two years.
“Clay will be free to keep on fighting and preaching,” Susman said.
Induction officers said Clay will be treated just like any other draftee.
The induction ceremonies will be closed to the press and public. Clay and the others draftees will be given a series of physical and mental tests, postponing the “one step forward” until around 1:30 pm EST.
Muhammad Ali protests the Vietnam War: Jury returns indictment against Clay
Columbus Daily Telegram (May 8, 1967)
Houston — A federal grand jury today returned an indictment against heavyweight champion Cassius Clay, alias Muhammad Ali, for his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces.
Clay was indicted by a 21-member federal grand jury, which included one Negro.
US Dist Atty Morton Susman recommended Clay be placed under $5,000 bond and, if he posted it, be released in the custody of his Houston attorney, Quinnan Hodges.
Hodges and Clay’s New York attorney, Hayden Covington, had said earlier they were prepared to surrender Clay to the US marshal’s office if he was indicted.
The former champion returned to Houston Sunday and conferred with his attorneys while the grand jury was meeting.
The jury, whose foreman is Alan Dabney, met an hour and 15 minutes before reporting to US federal Judge Ben C Connally.
Susman asked Connally that Clay be allowed to make bond only on two conditions — that he promise to appear for all scheduled court hearings and that he would accept Hodges as his legal custodian. Susman said Hodges had agreed to assume responsibility as custodian.
If Clay is convicted on the charge of refusing to be inducted, he would face a penalty of up to five years in prison and $10,000 fine.
He was indicted under the name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, “also known as Muhammad Ali.”
Susman said he would try to bring Clay to trial “as soon as possible” consistent with the court dockets, which were heavy.
Clay and his attorneys fought a long series of legal battles from the district court level through the appellate courts to the US Supreme Court in an effort to forestall his induction.
They alleged several grounds for such action, but the main bone of contention at the end was his claim for 4-D classification because he was a Muslim minister.
The undefeated heavyweight champ had reported to the induction center here as ordered on April 28, but when the name “Muhammad Ali” was called, Clay refused to step forward. Such a move would have signified his willingness to be inducted.
Induction officials said that Clay was very cooperative in all other respects and that he had undergone the usual pre-induction physical tests, blood tests and x-rays. Army doctors pronounced him fit.
Clay had made known his intentions well before the induction date, and his decision came as no surprise.