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Muhammad Ali "The Greatest" is Gone — But not Forgotten

17 June 2016 at 00:31 | 1308 views


By Mohamed A. Jalloh, USA.

Kindly join me in sympathizing with the family and friends of the late Muhammad Ali as many of us mourn the death yesterday of the only 3-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world (in 1964, 1974, and 1978).

As many know, he was born Cassius Clay in 1942 but he changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he became a Muslim in 1964. That life-changing conversion followed his upset victory over Sonny Liston for his first heavyweight title. See, "Muhammad Ali, ’The Greatest of All Time’, Dead at 74"

Those of us who later followed his progression from a world heavyweight champion to a champion of human rights for his fellow African Americans in the late 1970s admired him for his high self-esteem in an era when few African-Americans — and Africans — considered themselves equal to any and every other human being from a different race.

It is that indispensable requirement for self-motivation — self-esteem — which I humbly suggest is Muhammad Ali’s greatest contribution to the emancipation of his fellow African Americans, in particular, and people of direct African descent, in general, from mental slavery. Thereby, he helped lay the foundation for future generations of African Americans to aim for the highest goals available to the rest of their fellow Americans.

In that sense, it is eminently reasonable to partially credit Muhammad Ali for the election of Pres. Barack Obama — the son of an African father — as the first African American president of the United States in 2007, less than 50 years after Muhammad Ali publicly and courageously defied the U.S. government’s order to join the army to fight the Vietnamese people on the ground that doing so would violate his conscience:

"Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, stating that he had "no quarrel with them Vietcong."[51] "My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father.... How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."[52] He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March 1967 to October 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeals process. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself, as he had been the U.S. Solicitor General at the time of Ali’s conviction).

During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Ali’s stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African American pride and racial justice."

Source: "Muhammad Ali"

Sadly, it is the absence of that same self-esteem in most Africans which has retarded the progress of hundreds of millions of their fellow Africans towards the high standard of living that Africa’s abundant natural resources should have made possible.

Indeed, longtime readers of my writings would recognize therein the affliction among some Africans which I have referred to since the last century as Colonial Mentality — the belief held by an African that anyone and everything African are inherently inferior to anyone and everything non-African.

Kindly permit me to quote a description of Muhammad Ali’s epic battle against the U.S. government in demonstration of his undeniable self-esteem:

"Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), was Muhammad Ali’s[1] appeal of his conviction in 1967 for refusing to report for induction into the United States military forces during the Vietnam War. His local draft board had rejected his application for conscientious objector classification. In a unanimous 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself due to his previous involvement in the case as a Justice department official), the United States Supreme Court reversed the Fifth Circuit’s confirmation of the conviction. The Supreme Court of the United States found the government had failed to properly specify why Ali’s application had been denied, thereby requiring the conviction to be overturned.[2][3]


In 1964, Ali failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were sub-standard. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, the test standards were lowered in November 1965[4] and Ali was reclassified as 1-A in February 1966,[5][6] which meant he was now eligible for the draft and induction into the U.S. Army. When notified of this status, he declared that he would refuse to serve in the U.S. Army and publicly considered himself a conscientious objector. Ali stated that "War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers." Ali also famously said in 1966: "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong ... They never called me nigger."[7][8]

Ali appealed his local (Louisville, Kentucky) draft board’s rejection of his application for conscientious objector classification.[9] The Justice Department, in response to the State Appeal Board’s referral for an advisory recommendation, concluded, contrary to a hearing officer’s recommendation, that Ali’s claim should be denied, and wrote that board that Ali did not meet any of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status. The Appeal Board then denied Ali’s claim, but without stating its reasons.

In early 1967, Ali changed his legal residence to Houston, Texas,[10][11] where his appeal to be reclassified as a Muslim minister was denied 4-0 by the federal judicial district on February 20.[12] He appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces in Houston on April 28. As expected, Ali refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title.[13][14] Other boxing commissions followed suit. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on May 8[15] and convicted in Houston on June 20.[16][17] The trial jury was composed of six men and six women, all of whom were white.[18] The Court of Appeals affirmed and denied the appeal on May 6, 1968.[19]

In the U.S. Supreme Court, the government conceded the invalidity of two of the grounds for denial of petitioner’s claim given in its letter to the appeal board, but argued that there was factual support for the third ground.

Opinion of the Court

The Supreme Court held that, since the appeal board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, and it is impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department’s letter that board relied, Ali’s 1967 conviction must be reversed. The Supreme Court decision was handed down on June 28, 1971.[2][3][20]

Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong provide an account of the development of the decision in their book The Brethren. According to that account, Justice Marshall had recused himself because he had been U.S. Solicitor General when the case began, and the remaining eight justices initially voted 5 to 3 to uphold Ali’s conviction. However, Justice Harlan, assigned to write the majority opinion, became convinced that Ali’s claim to be a conscientious objector was sincere after reading background material on Black Muslim doctrine provided by one of his law clerks. To the contrary, Justice Harlan concluded that the claim by the Justice Department had been a misrepresentation. Harlan changed his vote, tying the vote at 4 to 4. A deadlock would have resulted in Ali being jailed for draft evasion and, since no opinions are published for deadlocked decisions, he would have never known why he had lost. A compromise proposed by Justice Stewart, in which Ali’s conviction would be reversed citing a technical error by the Justice Department, gradually won unanimous assent from the eight voting justices.[21]


May the soul of one of the world’s most beloved and humble champions of human rights, and the greatest champion of sports, Muhammad Ali, rest in peace.

Editor’s Note: The author, Mohamed A. Jalloh (photo), known universally to his many friends by his nickname, Moh’m, an American citizen, is a native of Sierra Leone resident in Maryland, USA. He originally posted his article on June 4, 2016, on the pioneering SALONEDiscussion forum on Yahoo that he founded more than a decade ago.