It is 1967 in the United States. Lyndon Johnson is president. He is escalating Kennedy’s war in Vietnam. USMC and ARVN troops launch Operation Deckhouse Five in the Mekong Delta. August 30th Thurgood Marshall is confirmed as the first African American Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. government needed public support for the war. But one man was very publically not supporting the war. His name was Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. Shortly after winning the world heavyweight championship, Clay converted to Islam, changed his “slave” name to Ali, and gave a message of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
When notified of that he was going to be drafted into the Army, 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.”
The issue of whether Ali was a conscientious objector ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the book The Brethern: Inside The Supreme Court, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong detailed how things did not look good for Ali at first. Initially, the Supreme Court justices ruled 5-3 against Ali during a conference. Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case due to his prior role as Solicitor General. The justice assigned to write the majority decision was John Marshall Harlan. He did not buy Clay’s conversion to Islam or understand Ali’s religious conviction..
Fortuitously, a clerk gave Harlan a book to read that made Ali’s religious convictions clear. The book was reportedly The Autobiography Of Malcolm X. That changed the court vote divided at 4-4. The court wanted to work a compromise since Ali was the largest sports figure of the day. That meant as usual it was Justice Potter Stewart who convinced the other justices of a procedural error by the lower courts: that the lower courts never explained why they turned down Ali’s appeals.
The final decision was a unanimous ruling, 8-0 in Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), in favor of Ali, a stunning turnaround from a potential 5-3 loss. 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:
Since the Appeal Board gave no reasons 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. Yet the Government now acknowledges that two of those grounds were not valid. And, the Government’s concession aside, it is indisputably clear, for the reasons stated, 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.
After the court announced its decision, reporters asked Ali if he intended to recover damages from his three-year exile from boxing. “No. They only did what they thought was right at the time. I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right,” he said.
Now you know why the man was the greatest.