(Reader: Charles) An Example of True Moral Courage: Cassius Clay


Reader Post | By Charles

I just finished reading:

Mike Marqusee’s Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (Pub. 1999). I was reading it for the first time. This book, published 23 years ago, taught me a lot about the 60’s that I never learned watching television network news during the “three-channel days”.

The author, Mike Marqusee, who passed away in 2015, spent most of his adult life living outside the United States. That gave him a good perspective on America in the Sixties.  Americans are (in my opinion) the most relentlessly propagandized people on this planet, but the worst part is, out of their weakness, and fear, they choose to believe their own propaganda, even against the evidence before their very eyes.  It is a choice they make, and a very bad one.  

If you lived through the 1960’s, and did not oppose that goddamned war, you didn’t possess the morality of a child.  Any 12-year old was capable of comprehending the immorality of it.

Marquessee wrote:

Among the numbers who resisted the draft, none was even remotely as famous as Muhammad Ali, and his defiance is surely worth more than the footnote it’s usually assigned in accounts of the growth of the anti-war movement. As the principal public role model for conscientious objectors and draft resisters, he gave courage to thousands of young men, many of them isolated from the organized movement. He made dissent visible, audible and attractive. Indeed, as a popular-culture hero, only John Lennon even comes close to rivaling Ali in his forthright opposition to American policy in Vietnam.  Because of his statements on Vietnam, Lennon, like Ali, was targeted by the FBI.

Moral courage is defined as “the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences.” In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger. 


Cassius Clay in 1967

A few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I watched the 1977 movie “The Greatest” for the first time. Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) plays himself in the movie. 

Cassius Clay appeared in Houston Texas on April 28, 1967 for his induction into the Armed Forces. The movie depicts how he refused three times to step forward when his name was called. He was called out of the room and informed that he would be given another chance, warned he’d be committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 if he didn’t step forward, and promised he would not have to serve in a combat role. Cassius Clay refused and he was arrested. That same day the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. He would not be able to obtain a license to fight in any state for over three years … until the Jerry Quarry fight in Atlanta in October 1970. 

I thought Muhammad Ali did a pretty good job playing himself in the movie, though his acting ability has been criticized, probably by people who remember him well as the colorful figure he was on the 60’s. I didn’t grow up in a household where we watched boxing matches, or where politics or the Vietnam War were openly discussed. I don’t remember any of this … so I don’t remember much about the man, or his heavyweight fights, his conversion to Islam, or his controversial refusal to fight an obscenely immoral war. That made the movie especially interesting to me. 

There’s a short video (2m30s) on YouTube that I found very interesting, I don’t remember ever seeing these video clips of Muhammad Ali … his eloquence and his passion:

Here’s what he said at the time:


“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

At the end of the YouTube video, this classic confrontation in which he schools a young white pro-war student:

“If I’m gonna die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I’m gonna die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”

That young man, certainly much better educated than Cassius Clay, could not grasp the simple logic of Clay’s argument … that he could not support a government that would invent lies to send young American men to kill foreigners who had done nothing to him, who posed no threat to Americans, and who were fighting to defend their own right to self-determination. Not while there were Americans who wanted to deny him his own (Constitutional) rights to liberty and self-determination. Cassius Clay was right to oppose the draft order. His conscience required it. 

Clay’s choice was crystal clear; his resolve unswayable, his spirit indomitable. The Truth made it so. Morality made it so. 

I remember asking my own opposers, two decades ago, “Why can’t you stand up for my rights as an American citizen?” They could not. Why not? 

It took a lot of courage to do what Muhammad Ali did. At the time, men were being assassinated for their public opposition to the Vietnam War. Ali will always rank near the top of my list of 100% American heroes. 


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