September 2016 Bar Bulletin
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September 2016 Bar Bulletin

Clay v. U.S.: Ali’s Greatest Fight

By Gene Barton


“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize.
But get used to
me—black, confident, cocky;
my name, not yours; my religion, not yours;
my goals, my own. Get used to me.”

—Muhammad Ali


When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston in Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964, for the heavyweight boxing championship, he “shook up the world.” But that was not his greatest achievement. That would come several years later, outside the ring, in a court of law.

The 1960s were a decade of civil unrest in the United States, highlighted by the Vietnam conflict, protests, assassinations and race riots. Shortly after Clay defeated Liston, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. It was, to say the least, a controversial decision, unlike his swift knockout of Liston in their rematch in 1965.

Acceptance was exceedingly slow. Sports Illustrated did not refer to him as Ali on its cover until 1967 — in February, he was Clay; in July, he was Ali. That was the year when the world would shake him up, when Ali, with or without intention, created a firestorm that would cost him his title, but eventually elevate him to the status of revered icon.

Ali (then Clay) was initially classified 1-Y for the Vietnam-era draft due to his poor test marks for mental competency caused by his dyslexia, which made him a poor reader. For reasons that have not been clearly explained, he was reclassified in 1967 and slated for induction. While Ali did appear for his scheduled induction in Houston, he refused to step forward when his name was called, asserting his status as a conscientious objector based upon his religion. As Ali famously stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He was indicted by a federal grand jury, convicted by an all-white jury, and sentenced to five years in prison.1

The draft appeals board, the U.S. Justice Department (which determined that his faith did not satisfy the requirements for conscientious objector [“C.O.”] status),2 and the appellate courts were unsympathetic. The appeals kept him out of prison, and those culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 1971 in Clay v. United States3 — “The winnah, by unanimous decision, Muhammad Ali!”

Interestingly, it was “eight aging white men” who rendered the decision and:

told the other aging white men of the federal law enforcement bureaucracy that it was time for them to stop screwing around with this particular American life. (Ali’s) was an American life because, born of that most basic American contradiction, he fought for the country of his birth against its government, just as Edward Abbey said a patriot always should be ready to do.4

The deciding Court at the time was comprised of the conservative/liberal mix of Chief Justice Warren Burger and justices Hugo Black, Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, William O. Douglas, John Harlan, Potter Stewart and Byron White. Ali’s most obvious potential benefactor on the Court, Justice Thurgood Marshall, recused himself due to his involvement as a Justice Department official in the initial ruling denying Ali’s petition for C.O. status. But, in the end, it didn’t matter.

The Court’s per curiam opinion is fairly succinct, after briefly setting out the underlying facts and decisions, and relies principally on the Government’s concessions before the Court and the holdings in United States v. Seeger5 and Sicurella v. United States.6

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