Muhammad Ali and the First Amendment

The incomparable Muhammad Ali, former three-time world heavyweight champion, just turned 71. A cultural icon on a global scale, Ali transcends sports. But he’s more than a popular former champion and world hero.  He and his life story exemplify the freedoms found in the First Amendment.

Ali freely exercised his religious faith. He regularly spoke provocatively on a variety of topics. The press was abuzz with coverage and criticism. Thousands assembled in support of him, and the champion himself took part in rallies, parades and marches. Some petitioned the government to redress the injustice of his conviction for refusing military service, which resulted in his being exiled from the boxing ring for his beliefs.

Muhammad Ali’s remarkable career and life placed him at the vortex of these First Amendment freedoms. Examining his life and career provides fertile ground for understanding the fragility and importance of First Amendment freedoms.

Freedom of religion

“What is all the commotion about?
Nobody asks other boxers about their religion.
But now that I’m the champion,
I am the king, so it seems the world is all
Shook up about what I believe.
You call it the Black Muslims, I don’t.
This is the name that has
Been given to us by the press.
The real name is Islam.
That means peace.”
— Muhammad Ali, as quoted in Ali Rap, edited by George Lois

The first 16 words of the First Amendment establish religious liberty, provide a degree of separation between church and state, and protect individuals’ right to exercise their religious beliefs freely. Muhammad Ali certainly exercised his religious beliefs — to his own financial detriment — when in April 1967 he refused induction at the Armed Forces Induction Center in Houston. One of his lawyers, Chauncey Eskridge, said Ali easily could have gone into a state national guard and avoided the front lines, but his sincere religious beliefs compelled him to take his stance.

The boxer’s greatest victory may not have been winning the heavyweight title from the formidable Sonny Liston in 1964, defeating George Foreman to regain the title in 1974 in “the Rumble in the Jungle,” or winning the third bout against Joe Frazier in the epic “Thrilla in Manila.” His greatest victory occurred in the U.S. Supreme Court against the U.S. government.

Ali’s refusing induction led to prosecution and conviction under federal law for failure to report for military service. His sentence was five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, which he appealed. But while he fought his legal battles, he was stripped of his championship title and lost his boxing license.

“If necessary, I’ll have to die for what I believe. I’m fighting for the freedom of my people,” he proclaimed in March 1967.

Skeptics questioned how a man who made his living punching people in the face could object to war, but Ali remained steadfast. He replied that “in the boxing ring we have a referee to stop the fight if it gets too brutal. The intention is not to kill, as it is in war. We don’t use machinery, artillery, guns.”

The Supreme Court in Clay v. United States reversed his conviction in 1971. (Ali’s birth name was Cassius Clay.) “[T]he Department [of Justice] 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 opinion said.   Even though Ali prevailed 8-0 before the high court, Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong later reported in The Brethren that the justices initially voted against him, finding that he wasn’t really a conscientious objector and that he should go to jail. Apparently, one of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s law clerks loaned the justice a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Harlan read the book and changed his views on Black Muslims.

Ali’s exile from boxing at the peak of his fistic prowess and subsequent conviction for refusing induction  implicated the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment. And his religious conversion to the Nation of Islam that enraged many Americans — even more so perhaps than his draft resistance.

In his prime, Muhammad Ali was deprived of a chunk of his great career, and the sport of boxing lost one of its greatest champions because he refused to violate tenets of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

Freedom of speech

“They’re all afraid of me because
I speak the truth that can set men free.”
— Muhammad Ali

When most Americans think of the First Amendment, they think of freedom of speech. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall eloquently captured the spirit of the First Amendment when he wrote in Police Dept. of City of Chicago v. Mosley (1972) that “above all else, the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content.” Another fundamental First Amendment principle is that the government may not restrict speech on the basis of viewpoint.

Muhammad Ali faced abject viewpoint discrimination at the hands of the federal government for his anti-war speech. Many say the government selectively prosecuted him because he was a proud black man in the Black Muslims who defiantly spoke his mind, making such remarks as “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” and “The white man sent the black man to kill the yellow man.” So although the technical charge against Ali involved draft evasion and whether he was truly a conscientious objector, many believe the real reason was that he was an outspoken African-American who questioned U.S. policy and thumbed his nose at draft laws.

During his legal difficulties, Ali gave up millions of dollars as the king of the heavyweight division. He faced the scorn of a nation, epitomizing the unpopular speaker punished for his dissident political views. He boldly proclaimed to the world: “I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want to be.” His audacity confounded many in the United States and perhaps abroad as well.

Though his controversial stances offended much of white America and others, the First Amendment protects a great deal of even offensive expression. Justice William Brennan expressed this concept well when he wrote in Texas v. Johnson (1989): “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because it finds it offensive or disagreeable.”

Freedom of the press

“Well, number one, it’s not Black Muslim, it’s Muslim. ‘Black’ is a name given to it by the press. It’s not Black Muslim. It’s Muslim.” — Muhammad Ali, at a press conference in New York City, 1965

Freedom of the press means that news reporters and columnists can write all sorts of things about public figures like Ali — adoring praise, vicious criticism, blatant lies and insightful truths. A free press unrestrained by government controls was free to excoriate Ali for his views on the Vietnam War and religion and later to praise him in his fight against Parkinson’s disease and his work for racial and civil justice.

The U.S. Supreme Court provided a healthy dose of protection from libel suits by public figures in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) and subsequent cases, writing that libel law must be tempered with the First Amendment principle of a “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

Ali’s former trainer, Angelo Dundee, wrote in his autobiography I Only Talk Winning that “I couldn’t help feeling that if the media hadn’t hyped up the ‘Black Muslim’ issue, the authorities might have treated the whole affair (of Ali’s draft resistance) differently.”

Many in the established press vilified Ali, calling him as unpatriotic, vitriolic, arrogant and even evil. Consider these quotes from four respected sportswriters:

    • “I have prepared a handy intelligence test which I think even a world leader of his eminence (Africa and Asia are looking to him for guidance, he says) can pass.”  (In reference to Ali’s failing the intelligence test given to him by the military.) — Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times
    • “Everywhere where were the crowds he revels in. They provide the cocaine that feeds the narcissism of this benighted fellow who mistakes crowds and headlines as approval of himself. But the day of reckoning will not go away and inexorably in his future is jail as a draft dodger. … What he knows is that he is an attraction, wherever he goes, even more so since he festooned his heavyweight title with the label of No. 1 draft evader.” — Shirley Povich, Washington Post
    • “Cassius Clay has become a member of the Black Muslims and his closest pal is the nauseous Malcolm X.” — Sid Ziff, Los Angeles Times
    • “Squealing over the possibility that the military may call him up, Cassius makes as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.  Yet in this country they are free to speak their alleged minds, and so is he. … Clay needs no help from the headlines to look bad.” — Red Smith, Washington Post

In particular, the leading sports columnists of day, Smith and Jimmy Cannon of the New York Journal-American (and later of the New York Post) were offended by Ali and set the tone for negative coverage. They were resentful of his sharp contrast to the former great black champion Joe Louis, whom Cannon praised as “a credit to his race, the human race.” Smith once wrote, “Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”

Yet other members of the press, including famed sports broadcaster Howard Cosell, often defended Ali, extolling him as a man of principle and a patriot of the highest order. For sportswriters, David Remnick wrote in SportsJones Magazine in 1999, Ali posed a challenge — and an opportunity to write and opine about a younger generation of boxer, willing to tackle controversial subjects as well as forbidding opponents in the ring. Eventually, some members of the press — including Red Smith — began to change their views on Ali.

The free-press clause of the First Amendment ensured this robust debate on this most public of public figures.

Freedom of assembly
The First Amendment also protects individuals’ rights to gather and protest peacefully protest. In American history, many people — be they striking workers or civil rights advocates, anti-war demonstrators or hatemongers — have used this freedom to advocate their causes. Sometimes these efforts have galvanized public support or changed public perceptions. Imagine a civil rights movement without the March on Washington, or the women’s suffrage movement without placard-carrying suffragists in the streets.

Muhammad Ali participated in and spoke at numerous rallies during his exile from boxing. He spoke at a June 1967 anti-war protest in Los Angeles, pulling up in a Rolls Royce and standing on a garbage can to address a crowd reported at 10,000. “Anything designed for peace and to stop the killing of people I’m for 1,000 percent,” he said. “I’m not a leader. I’m not here to advise you. But I encourage you to express yourselves.”

A few months later Ali led a three-hour march through the Watts section of Los Angeles to commemorate the 1965 riots there and the rebuilding that had taken place.

Ali’s opposition to the war was lauded at peace rallies. Thousands assembled around the Washington Monument in July 1967 for an anti-war demonstration and praised his refusal to go to war. “He is one of the great heroes of our time,” said Dagmar Wilson of Women Strike for Peace. Black militants demonstrated outside Madison Square Garden in March 1968, when Joe Frazier fought Buster Mathis for the heavyweight championship, protesting the removal of Ali’s title. “We feel that white America cannot tell a black person who deserves to be the world’s champion and decide for black people who the world’s champion is,” said John Wilson of the National Black Anti-War, Anti-Draft Union.

And in 1975, The New York Times reported, Ali led a march of 1,600 at a rally in Trenton, N.J., to support Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a former middleweight contender jailed on dubious murder charges. Carter was released from jail after a federal habeas corpus appeal a decade later.

Freedom of petition
The last freedom mentioned in the First Amendment says that people can “petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This individual freedom has deep historical roots; consider that the Magna Carta of 1215 and Declaration of Independence in 1776 were both petitions to English kings. Despite its glorious and venerated history, most people fail to appreciate that this freedom exists in the First Amendment.

People exercised their petition rights in support of Ali when he faced exile from boxing and criminal prosecution. Petitioners included an illiterate young man from England named Paddy Monaghan, an ardent Muhammad Ali fan who frequently spoke from at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, and picketed the U.S. embassy. Monaghan gathered 22,000 signatures and letters in support of Ali and delivered them to the embassy. The two later became lifelong friends.

Ali has also exercised his freedom of petition. In 2005 he signed a petition asking President George W. Bush to grant a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. Johnson was convicted and jailed in 1913 for having a romantic relationship with a white woman. Bush did not grant the pardon. In 2009, the Associated Press reported, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., asked President Barack Obama to issue one.

On another topic, in 2006, Ali and his wife Lonnie signed an online petition asking the Michigan Legislature to ease restrictions on stem-cell research.

Muhammad Ali, the man known as “The Greatest,” has won amazing victories in the boxing ring. His triumphs over Liston, Foreman and Frazier are legendary. But he and his life journey embody much more than stunning achievements in the boxing ring. He embodies the essence of the First Amendment.

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