Derek Gentile: Muhammad Ali took brave stance against unfair draft


PITTSFIELD >> There have been many tributes, in these pages and everywhere else, to a boxer I consider the greatest heavyweight in history, Muhammad Ali.

The great mark against him, in the eyes of many, was his refusal to be drafted in 1967.

But let's look at that. In 1964, Ali was notified of his draft eligibility. He went to a draft office in Houston (his home at the time) and took a physical and a basic IQ test.

He passed the physical. He failed the test, in large part because he was almost functionally illiterate. Ali scored a 15. Passing grade was 20.

In the late 1950s into the 1970s, African-American students at Louisville Central High School were given diplomas that were not worth the paper on which they were printed. Black kids were expected to work menial jobs after graduation.

So Ali was 4-F. But six months later, the Texas draft board lowered the passing grade to 11. There was no hearing or announcement. It was unilateral. I won't disagree that Ali was not the only person affected by this, but he was certainly the most famous.

This began his long appeal to be considered a conscientious objector. A few days after he refused induction in 1967, the New York State Boxing Commission stripped him of his heavyweight title. There was no hearing and no chance for appeal. Within literally hours, every boxing commission in the country followed suit. Again, no chance to appeal.

Ironically, when Ali reported to court for his first appeal hearing, a judge unilaterally forced him to surrender his passport. So now not only could he not box in the United States, he couldn't go anywhere else to box, either.

Ali has been criticized, mostly by whites, because they either don't understand how he was railroaded or weren't alive at the time. But consider this: During the height of the Vietnam War, well over 80 percent of African-American males between 18-22 were drafted and went overseas.

In contrast, the percentage of white males in that age group who went overseas was about 48 percent. Think George W. Bush, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. Somehow, no one seems to think that was shameful. Blacks in the 1960s called the draft the "meat grinder," for obvious reasons.

Ali's decision to fight the U.S. government was inspiring to many African-Americans, then and now. It was a decision based on principle, not cowardice.

Ali never went to Canada, never complained about his legal issues and said many times that he was willing to go to jail if that was his fate. He loved the United States and was proud that he represented his country in the 1960 Olympics.

The story that he threw his gold medal into a river is a myth, by the way. In an interview in the early 1970s, his father, Cassius Clay Sr. or "Big Cash," reported that one of the former members of Ali's entourage made off with it.

I'm sure there are people who wouldn't believe this tale even they saw it with their own eyes. But I've done the research and I believe this is how it happened.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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