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Over 50 Years After the Conviction of Muhammad Ali: Looking Back On the Greatest's Biggest Challenge

Over 50 Years After the Conviction of Muhammad Ali: Looking Back On the Greatest's Biggest Challenge

Muhammad Ali offers no comment to the press, the day before his conviction on June 20, 1967

Post Author - Erik Wells

On June 20, 1967, the Greatest faced his greatest challenge yet... though this fight took place outside the ring. Muhammad Ali, at the height of his career, was convicted for refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War. The road to this shocking conviction began three years earlier when Ali was classified as 1-Y, or “only fit for service in times of national emergency,” due to “substandard writing skills” as a result of dyslexia. In 1966, the army lowered its standards for admittance, and Ali was reclassified as 1-A. 

This decision came during a period of escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Ali declared that, if drafted, he would refuse to serve as he considered himself a conscientious objector. He made it clear that his aim was not to dodge the draft, and that he simply believed, “War is against the teachings of the Qur'an… We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger… We are not to be the aggressor but we will defend ourselves if attacked."

Over the following year, Ali attracted increased controversy as he doubled down on his anti-war statements and tied them to his Civil Rights advocacy. During one interview, he remarked, “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 and denied simple human rights?” On April 28, 1967, he reported for his induction into the armed services, but he refused to step forward three times when his name was called. He was subsequently arrested and stripped of his boxing license, as well as his World Heavyweight Champion title. Two months later on June 20th, he was convicted by an all-white jury after only twenty-one minutes of deliberation. The next day, he was sentenced to five years in prison, in addition to a $10,000 fine. This was considered unusually harsh (especially given that the Appeal Board never gave a reason for denying his claim for a conscientious objector exemption), but it was generally understood to be the result of a bipartisan effort to prevent Ali from becoming a symbol of anti-war resistance.

Muhammad Ali leaving the Armed Forces Induction Center after refusing to be drafted

Ali ultimately never served jail time, but he did spend the next three years of his physical prime unable to box. Instead, he turned to the very thing that had once been his weakness: the written word. Throughout his three-year exile, he traveled the country giving speeches advocating against the war and for racial justice. Ali’s conviction arrived at an inflection point in public attitude towards the Vietnam War, stemming from the war’s high financial and human cost, and having an incredibly charismatic speaker with a lot of newfound free time on their side caused anti-war sentiments to grow in power. It was rare at the time for an athlete of Ali’s stature to be so politically outspoken, and his bravery motivated fellow athletes like Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell to get involved. While Ali was protesting the war, people around the world protested his conviction. A hunger strike took place outside the U.S. consulate in Pakistan, while protesters voiced their support for Ali in front of embassies in Guyana, Egypt, and England, where a bare-knuckle boxer named Paddy Monaghan marched by himself for weeks. He slowly accumulated over 22,000 signatures for a petition pleading to reinstate Ali’s boxing license.

In October 1970, thanks to mounting pressure from supporters like Monaghan, Ali was allowed to resume boxing. On June 28, 1971, his conviction was overturned on the basis that the Appeal Board gave no reason why Ali did not qualify for a conscientious objection. It took another three years, but Ali eventually reclaimed his Heavyweight title. Although he would lose the title for the last time at the end of the decade, he would always remain the People’s Champ.

Muhammad Ali addresses students at the University of Buffalo in 1967. Courtesy of University of Buffalo Library

Today, Muhammad Ali is remembered just as much for his bravery outside the ring as his bravado within it, and his actions during his exile showed us all that there is always a way to keep fighting for the principles we believe in. As we each consider our own principles that we live by, let us remember Ali’s words from his famed 1967 Howard University speech: “All you need to do is know yourself to set yourself free.”

Want to know more? You can learn more about the incredible life and triumphs of Muhammad Ali right here!

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