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Muhammad Ali Was a Champion in the Ring and the Supreme Court

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on June 08, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Muhammad Ali won his first world heavyweight championship when he was just 22 years old. "I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived," he declared after his victory. And he was more or less right. Ali would go on to win that title twice more, establishing himself as one of the most talented athletes of the 20th Century.

But Muhammad Ali wasn't just an athlete. He was a civil rights champion and a major cultural and political figure. And after he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, he was a champion in the Supreme Court as well. Here's a look back at Ali's legal win.

"Just Take Me to Jail"

Two years after winning his first heavyweight title, Ali was drafted for the Vietnam War. At that point, he'd already become an outspoken defender of civil rights and anti-establishment politics, having renounced his "slave" name of Cassius Clay and converted to Islam. When called to fight the Viet Cong, he refused. "How can I shoot those poor people?" he asked. "Just take me to jail."

His condemnation of the war, the draft, and racial injustice is worth repeating in full:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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? No I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality ... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn't have to draft me, I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years.

Ali didn't go to jail, at least not for any significant amount of time. In 1967, he was arrested for evading the draft, convicted after 21 minutes of deliberation, and released pending an appeal. In the meantime, every state systematically revoked his boxing license, ending his career for the next three years.

Ali's Supreme Court Fight

Ali's appeal eventually made it up to the Supreme Court. At issue was the validity of the Selective Service System's denial of his conscientious objector status. Ali had argued that his religion and conscious prevented his service.

The government, however, maintained that it was "clear that the teachings of the Nation of Islam preclude fighting for the United States not because of objections to participation in war in any form but rather because of political and racial objections to policies of the United States."

The DOJ rejected the sincerity of Ali's religious beliefs and opposition to war. That conclusion was contrary to a hearing officer's recommendation, and lead to Ali's claim to be denied, without any stated reason.

When Ali's case reached the Supreme Court, the government changed tack, acknowledging the sincerity of his objections. But by that point, the damage to the government's case against Ali had been done. "Since the Appeal Board gave no reason for its denial of the petitioner's claim, there is absolutely no way of knowing upon which of the three grounds offered in the Department's letter it relied," a per curiam Court wrote. "It is indisputably clear," the Court continued, "that the Department was simply wrong as a matter of law in advising that the petitioner's beliefs were not religiously based and were not sincerely held."

The case did not break new legal ground. It fell well within Supreme Court precedent, the Court noted. But it was a major victory nonetheless, vindicating Ali's fight against the draft and opening the doors for him to return, quite triumphantly, to boxing. It was, pardon the pun, a knockout.

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