Many have paid tribute to the memory of Muhammad Ali, who has passed at the age of 74, after a long and debilitating struggle with the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. Many who never knew him, never had even a passing interest in the sport that first made him famous, many who have no interest in religion, or even the USA, have mourned his passing. Some, though, might ask what his actions, so far away across the world, did for them.
Pause for a moment and allow me to illustrate just one action Ali took, one stand he made, that improved the lives of so many people all around that world, and that showed the effect he had on all of us. That action, that stand, was Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the US military and sent to Vietnam. He took that stand, knowing full well what the consequences would be. It cost him dear. But it shone a light on a conflict that blighted his country.
The war in Vietnam was all-consuming: it consumed the country on whose soil it was fought, and spilled over into Cambodia and Laos. It consumed enormous amounts of military hardware and ordnance. It ate up and spat out the reputation of one of the USA’s most notable 20th Century Presidents. And it consumed the lives of poor Americans, whatever their race or religion, in the thousands.
Those who were well-off, those who were well-connected, those who knew the system well enough to work it to their advantage, all were spared the burden of going off to be put in harm’s way. Ali was smart enough to not only know this, but articulate the growing discontentment across his country.
For African-Americans, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave hope, banished the Jim Crow denial of democracy. Now, with the spectre of Vietnam hanging over them, they could see progress being reversed. When Ali took his stand, he assumed leadership of that group whose voice was being ignored. The establishment backlash came swiftly.
There was good reason for the story to be framed to portray Ali as The Bad Guy. The war was not going well. Lyndon Johnson was looking to persuade unwilling allies to commit not just words, but manpower, to Vietnam. The last thing he needed was a popular uprising against that war. But only after Ali took his stand did that uprising take hold.
Britain remained unpersuaded by Johnson’s entreaties, thus keeping our armed forces from being sucked into the deepening morass. Actors, business leaders, academics, other athletes, all registered their unease. And then Eugene McCarthy took up the challenge of Ali’s dissent, entering the contest for the Democratic Party nomination for the 1968 Presidential Election on an anti-war platform. Johnson withdrew soon afterwards.
The Vietnam conflict raged on for some years afterwards, but the American people now no longer automatically believed that their Government was right when it went to war. For Ali, being right brought a period in the wilderness and a long fight back. But it cemented his reputation as a champion of the ordinary, the dispossessed, the poor, the downtrodden. It was a mark of leadership when so few in his country had the courage to lead.
Whatever you remember Muhammad Ali for, do not forget his stand on Vietnam.