Muhammad Ali was standing outside his modest single-level home in a black neighbourhood in Miami when he first uttered the words that would come to define his role as a polarizing political icon. It was about 3 p.m. He’d been sitting in a lawn chair on a patch of grass by the house, watching the girls go by. Ali had finished a morning workout and was relaxing in the Florida sun.
Robert Lipsyte, a young reporter from the New York Times, sat beside him, working on a feature about the champ. He had come to chronicle the life of the fighter away from the ring. Ali, then 24, was flirting with girls who were passing by on their way home from high school—his typical theatre. Then Ali’s cook called him inside to take a phone call. It was a local reporter, informing Ali that the U.S. armed forces had lowered their testing requirements for conscription. Ali had failed to meet the IQ standard during an earlier test. With the amendment, he was likely to be drafted and sent to Vietnam.
Ali was furious when he returned to the yard. He told Lipsyte that he was too rich and famous to go to war. “His response was not the response of this saintly conscientious objector,” Lipsyte recalls. Within 15 minutes, Ali’s yard was packed with reporters. They shoved microphones and cameras in his face. They asked him if he’d answer the call of war, should it come. Surrounding him were members of the Nation of Islam, who, according to Lipsyte, dangled the star athlete like a puppet for their cause. They egged him on. They told Ali that he’d be sent to the front lines, and that a “cracker” soldier was likely to stuff a grenade down his pants. “He’s a kid,” Lipsyte says. “And he’s getting more and more wound up.” Lipsyte was about the same age as the heavyweight. “I didn’t know where Vietnam was that year,” he says. “Who knew where Vietnam was?”
But Ali, fire in his eyes, insisted he did. As the reporters continued to arrive, hour after hour, Ali’s initial rage, a response to fear, turned to rage as a response to what he saw as an injustice—an attack on a strong black Muslim, a political attempt to defeat The Greatest. “He’s exasperated, he’s tired, he’s angry,” Lipsyte recalls. He stood next to Ali as a Nation of Islam lackey shouted political, racially charged one-liners about white men sending black men to kill brown men. “And he just kind of blurts it out: ‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.’ ”
Of all Ali’s famous sound bites, those words would resonate as his boldest statement—summarizing the turmoil of a nation and the spirit of a generation. He’d repeat the phrase several times for the press, adding the famous: “No Viet Cong never called me n—–.” They would be repeated through the decades as Ali’s legend was reimagined and rewritten. Ali was a young man when the words first sprang from his lips. It was 1966. An era of fear and rage, of hope and change. JFK and Malcolm X were dead. Within two years, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. would share their fates—stolen souls, lost in the brutal, inevitable collision of Americas, old and new. Already, Ali was as well-known—as hated, as loved—as any of them.
Months later, on the morning of April 28, 1967, Ali walked into the U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston. The sidewalk was lined with young protesters opposing the war and cheering for Ali. Inside, the new inductees were called by name and asked to step forward, an official acceptance of the call into the armed forces. An officer called out, “Cassius Clay! Army!” Ali didn’t budge. The officer called him “Ali.” He still didn’t move. Another officer took him into a room and made sure he understood the severe penalty he’d face for refusing the draft—a $10,000 fine and five years in jail. He was asked again to step forward. Ali remained still. He was asked to write the reasons for his refusal. “I refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States because I claim to be exempt as a minister of the religion of Islam,” he wrote. Ali walked out onto the steps to the cheers of his supporters and the familiar flash of cameras. Through a buzz of reporters, he restated the words he had refined leading up to this defining act: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me n—–.”
Inside and outside the ring, Ali did many great things. But his activism would forever be framed by those words, symbolizing the stand he took against the American government, and, in large part, its people. His refusal to join the army was both celebrated and vilified. To many, he was courageous—risking freedom and fortune as a matter of principle. To others, he was a mouthpiece for the Nation of Islam—manipulated and controlled, spreading divisive, anti-American propaganda. The phrase captured his role as a personality beyond the ring, unwilling to simply shut up and box.
But then, nothing in Ali’s life has ever been contained to the ring. The realities of racial injustice haunted him as a boy growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. He’d lie awake at night, worrying that his loved ones could be beaten, even lynched, by a mob. It’s easy to see how, as a young man, Ali would be drawn to a radical group of black Muslims, proudly speaking out against the centuries of oppression by a white, racist culture. But the Nation of Islam went further than that—its leader, Elijah Muhammad, proclaimed the need to separate the races. The message countered the civil rights movement, led by King, which had an emphasis on equal rights, respect and integration. “Suddenly he’s in this organization that tells him black is beautiful. That he’s superior to white people,” says Lipsyte. “White America, which does not understand the Muslims at all, is scared s–tless of them. And let’s not forget that one of the most powerful and polarizing figures in America at that time, Malcolm X, is like his older brother. So there are so many positive reasons to be part of this group and go along with this group.”
Malcolm X had been the charismatic face and voice of the Nation of Islam until he grew disillusioned by Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisy, and the organization’s divisive message. He was Ali’s close friend and mentor. “The only person who ever tried to develop his intellect was Malcolm X,” says Sunni Khalid, a journalist with an interest in Ali’s relationship with the Nation of Islam. But Ali infamously shunned his mentor when Malcolm X split from the Nation of Islam in 1964. Malcolm X was assassinated within a matter of months, on Feb. 21, 1965. Initially, Elijah Muhammad had little interest in Cassius Clay, as Ali was then named—but after he defeated Sonny Liston to win his first heavyweight championship in 1964, the young fighter’s value became apparent. “They wanted to keep Ali as an asset, and they did,” says Khalid. Elijah Muhammad had the star fighter change his name to Muhammad Ali—securing his most valuable spokesperson and financial contributor for years to come. There has been much speculation that Ali remained linked to the Nation of Islam partially because of fear. If Malcolm X, its most legitimate and powerful voice, could be murdered by members of the movement he once led, what might happen to Ali if he turned his back?
Despite—or perhaps because of—his connection to the Nation of Islam, Ali’s heart managed to inspire and empower people around the world. Thomas Hauser, Ali’s official biographer, says that, among boxers, only Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson came close to having the impact on society that Ali had. Both brought down racial barriers in their sport, and both compelled people to challenge entrenched attitudes toward race, with significant impacts on the civil rights movement. Ali’s impact was different, Hauser says, but no less important. “When he was saying, ‘I’m so pretty,’ the message was really ‘black is beautiful,’ ” says Hauser. “He became a beacon of hope for oppressed people in America and all over the world.”
For his public defiance, Ali was found guilty of refusing induction into the armed forces. He was fined and faced jail time. As Ali appealed the charges, he was stripped of his championship belts and exiled from boxing for three years. In 1969, Daily Mail reporter Ian Wooldridge asked Ali why he seemed willing to throw away the greatest career in sports to make a statement. “I haven’t thrown it away. I haven’t lost it,” Ali replied. “I turned it down. See, the greatest sports title means nothing if you cannot be free.”
Julian Bond, a prominent civil rights leader and academic, disapproved of Ali’s association with the Nation of Islam but deeply admired his sense of purpose and passion. “Here’s a man who was at the top of his game and voluntarily gave that up because he placed principle above everything,” says Bond, also the former chairman of the NAACP. Ali became a political inspiration for people of all ages. His reach went beyond North America into Africa, where many found a hero in a black, proudly Muslim champion. “His was a worldwide fame,” says Bond. “What he did and said reverberated everywhere.”
Eventually, as he aged, Ali’s activism transformed. His hard-line views softened with his blows. Ali focused on using his faith and fame as a force for progress. He worked tirelessly to raise money for Parkinson’s research. He supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He has travelled to countries such as Mexico, Morocco and Afghanistan to help and inspire wherever he could. In 1998, Ali was chosen to be the United Nations Messenger of Peace, for his relief efforts in developing countries. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He received the President’s Award from the NAACP for public service, and attended the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama. He opened up the Muhammad Ali Center, an international education initiative, in his hometown of Louisville in 2005. “I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given,” he said at the centre’s opening ceremony. “I believed in myself and I believe in the goodness of others.”
In her book, Hana Yasmeen Ali, one of Ali’s nine children, recalled him as a loving, dedicated father who read to her before bed. “It was not my father’s championships that made him great; not his Olympic success, or his victory over the government,” Yasmeen wrote. “His greatness lies in his ability to keep love in his heart through the upheavals of life. His greatness is in his courage, it’s in his strength, and it’s in his compassion.”
When Ali stood in front of his concrete house in Miami, proclaiming, “I ain’t got no quarrel…,” he was a 24-year-old kid facing a world eager to love or despise him. If viewed through an honest lens, his admirable contributions to social justice will forever be tainted by his association with a notorious organization that, some argue, sought to derail the momentum of the civil rights movement. But Ali’s appeal, his worldwide fame, has more power than the echoes of hatred that have faded into the distant past. His heart, as complicated and flawed as it is passionate, became a source of inspiration and hope for millions. Outside the ring, says Hauser, his timing was perfect. The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the rise of TV as a force in sports—all these made him something beyond a boxing champion. They made him a cultural icon. In the following decades, other athletes would have the opportunity to share their voices, but none would rise the way Ali did. “Many then, and even more so today, act as if politics didn’t affect them in any kind of way,” says Bond. “In some way, it’s shameful. But Ali had the courage, at great risk to his own career, to speak out and be heard.”