Muhammad Ali and me

Athletes are once again demonstrating leadership to call attention to, and demand change to stop injustice. It has been amazing to see kneeling during the national anthem, for which Colin Kaepernick was vilified, now supported by athletes and supporters of all sports.

We are being reminded of how Muhammad Ali was similarly treated when he refused to participate with the military draft during the Vietnam War. His courage in doing so. The example he set that continues to inspire us today.

In the national memory of the Vietnam War, anyone who violated draft laws is typically seen as selfish, cowardly and unpatriotic. It was one thing for civil rights activists to confront the government by breaking the law; by 1967, many of them were regarded as among the nation’s finest citizens. But if a citizen defied the draft laws to take a similar stand, few saw it as the resisters did: as a desperate appeal to the nation’s highest ideals.

A loose coalition of “Resistance” organizers planned the national draft card turn-in. They were inspired by the civil rights movement, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (during which one of its leaders, Mario Savio, described having to “put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels, and upon the levers” in order to stop the operation of an odious “machine”) and the precedent of resisters such as Muhammad Ali. By risking indictment, they thought that they could put the Johnson administration — and the war itself — on trial in court proceedings all over the country.

“There was something of the flying trapeze in these maneuvers now,” Norman Mailer reported when the draft cards were returned to the Justice Department. The commitment to an uncertain future that might involve a prison sentence was like a “moral leap which the acrobat must know when he flies off into space,” he wrote. “One has to have faith in one’s ability to react with grace en route, one has,” he concluded, “to believe in some kind of grace.”

The Moral Case for Draft Resistance, by Michael Stewart Foley, New York Times, October, 17, 2017

Muhammad Ali was one of the most significant influences in my life, at a difficult time in my life (late 1960’s).  Approaching my 18th birthday, when I would have to decide what I was going to do about registering with the Selective Service System, I saw Muhammad Ali take a very public, very unpopular stand against the Vietnam War.

He said:

“Under no conditions do we take part in war and take the lives of other humans.”

“It is in the light of my consciousness as a Muslim minister and my own personal convictions that I take my stand in rejecting the call to be inducted. I do so with the full realization of its implications. I have searched my conscience.”

“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…they never called me _______ ” (a racial epitaph).

It was very clear what the consequences of that decision could be, and yet he would not be persuaded to change his position, despite knowing he was jeopardizing his boxing career.

I was impressed by his clear vision of the responsibility of every person to stand for peace and freedom, and every person’s responsibility to the world community, no matter their religion, race or country.

He helped me make my own decision to refuse to participate with the draft, and the Vietnam War.  And continued to be an inspiration in the days that followed.

The way to honor Ali is be be Ali today.

Rabbi Michael Lerner

Rabbi Michael Lerner delivered a powerful speech about Muhammad Ali and his moral power at Ali’s funeral. He said the way to honor Ali is to be Ali today.



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1 Response to Muhammad Ali and me

  1. winstanding@wildblue.net says:

    It is so interesting that Ali was famous for his talent in the boxing ring, and yet in the rest of his life was so peaceful. A neat story that he gave you strength for your difficult decision.

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