Sunday, March 6, 2011

March 6, 1967: Conscientious objector

ARLINGTON, Va. - In 1964, Muhammad Ali failed the armed forces qualifying test because his reading and writing skills were subpar. But in 1966, with the test altered, he passed. He said he would never fight in Vietnam, saying it was against his religion. The Army wasn't moved, and on March 6, 1967, Muhammad Ali was reclassified as 1A, making him eligible for being drafted.

It was the difference of one letter, but it made all the difference in the world. Ali was claiming he should be classified as 1AO - a conscientious objector. He stuck to his claim that he would never fight in Vietnam, and when he refused to serve, his case was taken to court.

Like with seemingly all things with Ali, this debate was about more than just one man not wanting to serve in Vietnam. For many people who were opposed to the war, Ali was the champion of their cause, the one man brave enough to say what many people thought and the one man famous enough to do something about it.

For the U.S. government, Ali's status was about more than making a man serve in battle. It was about justifying their reasons for being in Vietnam and for legitimizing the draft.

Perhaps more importantly, it was about the public relations battle. Initially, Ali's stance made him extremely unpopular, the final straw for many people who tired of Ali's bravado and antics. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship and no state would grant him a boxing license. He was found guilty of draft dodging, a felony. In the eyes of most, he was losing.

But as the battle went on, starting with Ali's first public refusal to be inducted and continuing through the court battle, public perception started to turn. As the war dragged on and more and more Americans started to wonder why we were still there, Ali started to seem more and more like the good guy. Unable to box to make money, he started in on a lecture tour, speaking at college campuses where many students were anti-war like him. People started to realize that, perhaps, Ali was right all along.

Ali kept fighting his conviction, kept having appeals courts uphold the ruling, until finally taking his case to the Supreme Court in 1971. The Supreme Court didn't reverse Ali's actual conviction, but said that since the government didn't specifically state why it wasn't allowing Ali to be a conscientious objector, the ruling could not stand. It was a technicality, but it was also a victory for Ali.

Soon thereafter, the U.S. began pulling its troops out of Vietnam, and Ali was soon fighting in heavyweight championship fights again. While it's really stretching things to say Ali was responsible for ending the U.S. involvement in the War, his conviction and court battle went a long way toward swaying public opinion away from the government's side. While he was a pariah during the first part of his battle, he eventually won over many of his detractors. Just like he did so often in the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali won.

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