The day Muhammad Ali got knocked out by the draft board
The appeal board rejected Ali’s ministerial exemption — and he didn’t flinch
On Jan. 12, 1967 — 50 years ago on Thursday — Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay, received word that not only had Local Board No. 47 reviewed his file and declined to reopen his classification, but the board agreed unanimously that he was not exempt from the draft via the ministerial exemption.
Two days before, the Kentucky Appeal Board had notified Ali that it had denied his conscientious objector claim, and he would be classified as 1-A.
Even though a hearing officer found Ali’s objection to be sincere the previous year, the U.S. Department of Justice recommended that his conscientious objector status be denied, and the Kentucky Appeal Board followed through with this recommendation. The Appeal Board for the Southern District of Texas, where Ali transferred his case after relocating, also rejected his ministerial exemption.
The legendary boxer, who died on June 3, 2016, made three different appeals to be excluded from the draft, citing his nonviolent Muslim faith, and all three were rejected. These decisions set in motion possibly the most important standoff of Ali’s career — the day he refused to be inducted into the military.
Ali appeared for the induction at Houston’s Military Entrance Processing Station, but when his name was called on April 28, 1967, he would not step forward.
Ten days later, a grand jury in Houston indicted him and the dominoes began to fall — state after state revoked his licenses to fight and his heavyweight title was stripped from him by the World Boxing Association.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Ali asked.
Seven years earlier and soon after his 18th birthday, Clay had registered with the Selective Service on April 18, 1960. That same year, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Summer Olympics in Rome and then became a professional boxer.
Because of unsatisfactory scores on the mental acuity test, he was classified as 1-Y — ineligible — in 1964. This was also the year Clay was catapulted into stardom by upsetting Sonny Liston and taking the WBA, World Boxing Council and lineal heavyweight titles. This was the final year Clay would go by his birth name as he converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
In 1966, the military lowered its draft eligibility standards, and Ali was reclassified as 1-A by the Local Board No. 47. He responded by filing the Special Form for Conscientious Objector — Form 150 — on Feb. 28, 1966.
By filing this form, he had three requirements to meet: show that he was conscientiously opposed to “war in any form,” that his opposition was based on religious training, and that it was sincere.
A March 28, 1967, Chicago Tribune article reported: “Clay, 25, recently said that if going to war would help America’s Negroes ‘get freedom, justice and equality, you would not have to draft me. I would join.’ ”
After a two-day trial, a jury convicted Ali on June 20, 1967, and he was sentenced to five years in prison and $10,000 fine — the maximum penalty.
Four years later, Ali would be vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, though it wasn’t an easy win by any means. Initially, reports came out that the Supreme Court voted to uphold Ali’s conviction, 5-3, with Justice Thurgood Marshall not participating.
After some consideration, Justice John Marshall Harlan changed his vote to strike down Ali’s lower court decision.
The debate was reignited, but a conclusion was reached on June 28, 1971, when the eight participating justices agreed Ali’s conviction should be tossed because the Justice Department had misstated a point of law in a letter to the Kentucky Appeal Board.