The movie trailer of the biopic (''Ali''), detailing Ali's life, starring Will Smith as Ali
ALI AND RELIGION
Cassius Clay had been raised in a Christian family and therefore brought up under the Christian influence. However, as he entered his teenage years, his interest grew for the Nation of Islam (NOI), a sect of religion formed by African-Americans. Clay's first encounter of the Nation of Islam was in 1959, when he when he was in Chicago the site for the amateur Golden Gloves tournament, and by chance also the home base and headquarters of the NOI. At the high stakes tourney, Ali was surprised to see a number of Black Muslims present and in attendance. He began to collect sermons preached by Elijah Muhammad, the prominent leader and figurehead of this intriguing religious organization.
What truly struck Ali was the consistency and discipline demonstrated within the NOI. The concept of separation and nation-wide "Black Pride" also played a major factor in his decision to join the sect. There were also times in his early life when he displayed, in minor ways, interest in the growing NOI from a far, even before his encounter in 1959. One example of this was his request to do a high school term paper on Black Muslims. Although his teacher refused to let him take on such a task, he continued to buy tapes and read magazines published by the NOI, such as Muhammad Speaks. “Something,” according to Ali biographer David Remnick, “had resonated in his mind, something about the discipline and bearing of the Muslims, their sense of hierarchy, manhood, and self-respect, the way they refused to smoke or drink or carouse, their racial pride". Clay's devotion would remain a secret for some time. At the age of nineteen, he met a man who went by the name of Captain Sam, in Miami who further explained the beliefs of Black Muslims to him. It all made sense to Clay, who by that time was beginning to tire on the civil rights struggle. He had been told about the current conditions of African-Americans, how they had come to be enslaved, and the attitudes of whites towards blacks. Captain Sam invited Clay to his first live sermon at a Black Muslim church. The minister's words struck a deep chord in Clay. In an interview with writer Thomas Hauser, he explains, "That was plain to me. I could reach out and touch what [the minister] Brother John was saying. It wasn't like church teaching where I had to have faith that what the preacher was preaching was right''. The views would match Ali's unconventional and bold personality. At this time, Clay began to serious consider joining the Nation.
Then a major split in power occurred that would forever change the makeup of the NOI. Malcolm X went on hajj to Mecca, as is required of every Muslim. There, surrounded by Muslims of all different shades and colors, his separatist views began to dramatically change. When Malcolm began to follow a more conciliatory agenda (along the lines of Martin Luther King Jr.), his former friends, the members of the NOI, turned their backs on him, including Ali, who chose to stick with the group of Elijah Muhammad. Soon afterwards, NOI members assassinated Malcolm. While it was true that Ali felt no sympathy toward Malcolm's sudden death at first, he would later on begin to soften in regards to the disagreements he had had with his former best friend.
Ali's religious beliefs were key in many of the political decisions that he made. His ardent refusal to accept drafting into the Vietnam War was stemmed from Muslim belief that the war that did not concern America and was not performed on qualified moral grounds.
The real war, Ali thought, was at home, in the form of gaining more rights for black people nationwide.
ALI AND VIETNAM
Ali's struggle against the United States government did not begin explicitly with the Vietnam War. At the age of eighteen, he had registered in Louisville for the army. In 1964, he was classified as 1-A, meaning that the possibility of being drafted was very real.
However, in not much time before his first fight with Sonny Liston, the government ordered him to go to an induction center and take the necessary exams. However, his score on the aptitude test was so low that the army registered his IQ a 78. As a result of this incident, the army marked him as ineligible (1-Y) for active service in Vietnam. When Ali became the world champion, the army even gave him another aptitude test, just to make sure that he wasn't faking it. He failed yet again.
Robert Lipsyte, a reporter for the New York Times, came to Ali one day with a jarring message. The government wanted to increase the number of troops in Vietnam, which meant therefore the requirement score for being drafted would be substantially lowered. As a result, Ali had been reclassified as 1-A once more, making his draft a sudden reality.
Ali was speechless for some time, but was nonetheless angered by this event. Ali refused to fight in a war he did not start and believed that the conflict was a violation of his religious beliefs. He was charged with breaking the Selective Service Act. As a result, his titles were stripped away, and the court forbade him to box for an indefinite period of time. Later on, he was convicted of draft evasion and he was sentenced to five years in prison, along with being required to pay a fine of $10,000. A few years later, however, in 1970, a judge ruled that he could continue boxing and his license was returned to him.
Lipsyte interviewed him on his views towards the Vietnam War. Ali biographer David Remnick relays the conversation:
''By now he was hearing new questions: 'What do you think of LBJ? What's your view of the draft? What do you think about the war? What about the Vietcong?' For a while, Ali stumbled. "Then all of sudden he hit the note," Lipyste remembered.
"Man," Ali finally told one reporter, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong.''
His words were immortalized in the various newspaper and magazine articles that covered his "Vietnam Stand." Once again he had demonstrated the ability to express himself in his extraordinary way. Remnick:
' 'As he had been before and as he would be again and again, Ali was the lead actor in his own improvisational American drama. He may not have been able to locate Vietnam on a map yet, and he knew almost nothing about the politics of the war, but when he was thrust into the midst of the national agony, he reacted, as he did in the ring, with speed and with wit.''
Some thought his actions to be selfish and un-American. Many lauded Ali for his willingness to stand up in defense of his religious beliefs. In a Black Scholar Interview, he said, "What's wrong with me going to jail for something I believe in? Boys are dying in Vietnam for something they don't believe." Ali refused to allow his personal convictions to be manipulated by his own country, a trait that many people admired at the time and almost 40 years later, still marvel at.