Muhammad Ali And The History Of Public Courage In America

By Eric M. Harris

The most important date in Muhammad Ali’s life was April 28, 1967.

No this was not the date of one of his amazing bouts with the great “Smokin'” Joe Frazier, it was not the date of the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, it was not the day that he converted to Islam, nor the date he lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta.

On this date, Muhammad Ali refused induction into the United States Army.

Muhammad Ali’s life is well chronicled.

He was born in Louisville in 1942.

He became a Gold Medal Winner in Boxing in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

He shocked the world in 1964 when he captured the world heavyweight boxing championship from Sonny Liston. His boxing career and life was off to a tremendous start.

Three short years later, his life took a drastic turn that showed courage on a level that has been unmatched by public figures in American history.

He was sentenced to the maximum of five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. He went into an unknown position of possibly not being able to box again all because he took a moral stand.

But he’s not the first to show massive amounts of public courage on the national stage.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first female with a medical degree in the United States. She was able to get medical books from a local reverend when he was a young woman.

She was met with “No’s” at almost every possible opportunity.

Many physicians suggested that she move from the United States to Paris, because she would have better opportunities.

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Blackwell studied in secret. In 1847, she was brought in to study medicine at Geneva Medical College. She was voted in unanimously by all male students at the college and became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.

President Abraham Lincoln’s story is well known by most. He was the President during one of America’s most difficult times- the Civil War.

He had the courage to not only have the Union fight the Confederacy in the Civil War, but he also wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves.

Slavery had been an institution in this country for hundreds of years. It was the driving force for the economy in the South and made many southern plantation owners very wealthy.

Although many other elected officials and leaders said that slavery was wrong, he was the first to actually do what it took to end it.

Some have pointed out however, that Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves did not have as much to do with the actual freeing of the slaves, but more to do with keeping the Union together. Lincoln said so himself.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another President during a challenging time in American history.

He was the president during the Great Depression and World War II. He was following in the foot steps of his distant cousin Teddy Roosevelt, who was one of the greatest presidents in our nation’s history.

Not to mention, he did all of this with a challenging disability, the disease of polio, which prevented him the use of his legs.

Read More: What Young People Can Learn From Muhammad Ali

Many people to this day do not know that while he was President, FDR did not have the use of his legs at all. He is a true inspiration to many, especially people with disabilities.

FDR had extreme courage to create new programs to help low income Americans in his New Deal program. He had to make difficult military decisions that would change the United States and the world forever.

Although his bravery is unquestioned, and the times might have made this difficult, he was not out front with his disability show others that disability is something that should be accepted and embraced.

FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Matt Wade/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo Credit: Matt Wade/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

He also did not have the best relationships with people of color for no other reason than they were of another race.

Jackie Robinson is an example that can be used to show another athlete who had extreme courage. He was the first African-American to integrate professional team sports. Boxers had integrated professional sports, but this was the first time where an individual had joined a team sport that had been exclusively white.

To many, Jackie Robinson integrating baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers was the start of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jackie was chosen by the Brooklyn Dodgers and Branch Rickey to be the single representative in that season and as someone who could take it after playing four sports at UCLA and being in the military.

As brave as that was for Robinson to do, in my opinion, he did not necessarily risk the way that Muhammad Ali did.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a strong progressive voice. She is a Democrat from California and has been in the House of Representatives since 1998.

One of the most powerful signs of courage was displayed by Congresswoman Lee in the Fall of 2001.

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United States Congress voted to give President authorization to use any force he sees as necessary and appropriate under the circumstances as a response for retaliation against the terrorists who killed thousands of American citizens.

Congresswoman Lee was the lone no vote in the House of Representatives.

She was shocked that she was the only no vote that day.

She talked about in later interviews that she received angry letters for years after her decision.

Photo Credit: Peter T/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Photo Credit: Peter T/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

Previously, while in the California legislature, she was one of very few no votes against the Three Strikes Law, that puts people in prison for 25 years to life after a third felony conviction.

Many Californian’s lives have been destroyed because of this law. Congresswoman Lee has shown the courage to stand by her decisions even when she knows that she might be one of very few who feel a certain way.

She understands how important it is to represent her constituents in the beset way possible, regardless of how others might decide to represent theirs.

Now lets look at Muhammad Ali’s decision not to step forward to join the United States Army.

He famously said:

“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 never put no dogs on me, they never robbed me of my nationality, they never raped my mother or father. What am I going to shoot them for what. How am I going to shoot them. They are little poor people women and children. How am I going to shoot them poor people, just take me to jail. If I’m going to die, I’ll die right here fighting you, if I’m going to die. You’re my enemy, my enemy is the white people, not the vietcong, or Chinese or Japanese. You’re my opposer when I want freedom. You’re my opposer when I want justice. You’re my opposed when I want equality, you won’t even stand up for me for my religious beliefs. You want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me at home.”

Muhammad Ali had just won the Heavyweight Title of the World in Boxing, and had that title stripped from him.

It was the first time any boxer in history had had his boxing title stripped from them without losing it in the ring. Ali was 25 years old, in his athletic prime.

He had only been a boxer up to that point and had no realistic way of knowing how he would provide for himself.

He knew that he was potentially taking a chance where he might not be able to box ever again.

Ali knew that he was giving up years in his prime, while he was the heavyweight champion of the world. To put this in some context, this would be like if Steph Curry decided to leave basketball, go to jail for a political stance and not able to return to the sport.

Ali did all of this in the height of the Civil Rights era in the 1960s, a year before Martin Luther King was assassinated. His level of courage and pride stands above any public figure in American history.

Ali also knew that the backlash for this decision could be even more serious and drastic. After the statement, “I have no quarrel with those vietcong … No vietcong ever called me Nigger.” He saw millions around the country call him unpatriotic. This was only the beginning. Ali could not have known what the reaction would have been like with his fans and supporters, military veterans and supporters of the war and military throughout the country.

Ali could have moved on through life disliked by nearly everyone in his own country. He did not care.

He had already rubbed many the wrong way by joining the Nation of Islam. He rubbed his father and many in his family the wrong way by changing his name from Cassius Clay.

Ali showed another example of being able to make a difficult decision without caring about the possible repercussions, despite understanding what they could and likely would be. That is true courage.

Finally, it has been great to see so much support for an athlete that many, including myself look up to as a role model and a hero.

However, I find it interesting, because many of these same people coming out to support the Greatest now, will talk bad about outspoken athletes like Serena Williams, Floyd Mayweather and Lebron James when they make bold statements that are not as humble as many might like.

I understand that Muhammad Ali was a tremendous person and athlete that makes him different in many other’s eyes from the previous examples, but I hope we can give young superstar entertainers the benefit of the doubt the way many did with Ali as he was growing and becoming the greatest and letting us all know how great that was.

As we go through this election season, one can only hope that Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump can show powerful elements of courage in their actions and stances moving forward.

I will hope for our country’s sake that they are not just in this game to get recognized, elected and then reelected. One would hope that the person holding the highest office in the land is doing so with the type of courage that the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali showed on April 28, 1967.

There is not a single athlete, entertainer or elected official that I can think of who displayed more powerful courage in American history than Muhammad Ali on that date.

He impacted a generation of 20 and 30 somethings who did not even get a chance to see him fight live.

His story and passion resonated with all of us and I hope that his courage rubs off on an American society, which is in desperate need of some true courage in its leadership.

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Cover Photo Credit: Elizabeth Blackwell/ Flickr (CC By 2.0)

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