Hidden History: The Supreme Court Reversal of Muhammad Ali’s Draft Resistance Conviction

The Trials of Muhammad Ali

Directed by Bill Siegel (2013)

Film Review

Although I’ve watched several documentaries about the life of Muhammad Ali, I was previously unaware that the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for violating the Selective Services Act (for refusing to fight in Vietnam) – nor of the highly unusual circumstances under which they did so.

In 1966, world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. Although he remained out on bail during his five-year appeal, the felony conviction caused boxing commissions in most states to suspend his license to box. During this period, he supported himself and his family through paid speaking engagements.

Ali claimed conscientious objector status as a Black Muslim (contrary to popular belief, most interpretations of Islam are nonviolent). Giving up his slave name Cassius Clay, he joined the Nation of Islam in 1961. He also rejected the notion of Black Americans killing non-white Vietcong when their real enemies were white Americans. Although Martin Luther King rejected the nationalist stance of the Nation of Islam, he supported Ali’s stance on Vietnam.

The initial Supreme Court vote on Ali’s case was 5 to 3 (African American Thurgood Marshal recused himself) in favor of upholding the conviction. Assigned to write the opinion for the majority, Justice John Harlan learned a prior ruling regarding a Jehovah’s Witness draft evader set a clear precedent. In the end, all eight justices agreed to overturn the conviction.

Ali won a gold medal at age 18 in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 summer Olympics, and he won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston at age 22.

He would later disavow the Nation of Islam, adhering to Sunni Islam and supporting racial integration like his mentor Malcolm X.

In 2005, President George W Bush awarded him the medal of freedom.

Public library members can view this film free at Beamafilm.

 

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