RIP Muhammad Ali

We should have a new thread, rather than the “hospitalized” thread. The Greatest deserves it. The Greatest, gone at 74.

I was never into sports at all, and yet his was a personality that transcended sports and hit even me square in the jaw. RIP sir.

Has a bunch of stuff about him, certainly worth refreshing ones memories about one of greatest sportsmen of our times. I’ve boxed (amateur- 2 fights, 2 wins) , but am not a huge boxing fan (especially in later years where the evidence pointed to serious medical conditions due to the sport), however Ali was so much more than a boxer, even if arguably the greatest ever (certainly one of the top 3), and it was his personality, attitude and philosophy on life that made him number 1 in my book. What a guy.

RIP a true sporting legend.

I’m sure there were more important cultural heroes in the 20th century than Muhammad Ali.

But I’m not sure there were more than a few.

I was a big boxing fan as a kid growing up, before we fully understood about concussions and brain injury. (In a single month we had the Ray Mancini vs Duk Koo Kim fight and the Larry Holmes vs Randall “Tex” Cobb fights, both broadcast nationally, both pretty much ending the sport.) Muhammad Ali was bigger than life. At one point in the 1970s and 1980s he was the most recognized human being on the planet–more than the Pope, any world leader, movie star or musician.

And here’s the thing too: Ali took on the system. And if you were writing about him in, say, 1970, you’d say the system beat him.

But…he stayed true to his principles, true to himself, true to his religion, and in the end he won. His refusal to go fight in a terrible war for religious reasons was one of the most powerful forces that turned public opinion in the US. And after the death of MLK Jr, Ali remained a visible and angry and proud and in-your-face figure in the civil rights movement.

He was the goddamned Greatest.

I am not a boxing fan but I could have listened to the guy talk about whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted. I’ll miss him.

Here’s a crazy story for you, one that’s absolutely true.

It’s 1971, and Muhammad Ali has been sentenced to 5 years in prison for refusing to go fight in the Vietnam War. His famous quote about “Not having no beef with no Viet Congs” aside, there were bigger issues at work. Ali had refused to be inducted in 1967, and was convicted and sentenced based upon the argument that his decision was one based solely on his adherence to a racist cult and not founded in religious faith. Still, it’s Ali. Cassius Clay. Whomever. This will be a big deal if he goes to jail. Justice Brennan convinces his fellow justices that SCOTUS should hear Ali’s appeal, even though no one else wants to take it.

It’s also 1971, and Justice John Marshall Harlan II is serving his final few months on the court. He’s a conservative justice, named after the most important SCOTUS justice ever, and the son of another supreme court justice. He is not a man to be trifled with. He’s old. He’s august. He’s an Eisenhower appointee who has a reputation for being not at all willing to accept at face value the bullshit of others.

And so the Ali case comes up before the Court. And it is argued by the US that Ali cannot by definition be a conscientious objector, because he is a Black Muslim. Ali’s own words are turned against him, when it is pointed out that Ali may have said that he’d have been willing to go fight in a shooting war if other Black Muslims were attacked. The argument is well-constructed and clear, and very legally sound. The court is hearing it with only 8 members. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the bench has recused himself because he had been solicitor general when the case was originally heard. So, that’s a blow for Ali too.

After hearing the case, the court debates it and breaks 5-3. Chief Justice Burger is joined by Justices Blackmun, Black, White, and Harlan in upholding Ali’s sentence. The Greatest will go to jail. They decide all this while in conference in chambers on a Friday. Justice Harlan is tasked with writing the majority opinion, and retires to his home in Georgetown that weekend to begin to do his research to do so. As stated, Harlan is a craggy no-nonsense fellow. He also doesn’t know it here in the spring of 1971, but he’s not going to see 1972, either. He’ll be diagnosed with cancer in two months, retire from the Court a month after that, and die a few days after Christmas of that year.

But this is April, and he’s still got this opinion in him to write, and he knows that it’ll be one that will be widely read. And as he’s leaving his office that Friday to head home, one of his clerks takes him aside. Is Justice Harlan familiar with the Black Muslim movement, his clerk asks? Has the good justice read Alex Haley’s “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”? The clerk is insistent that before Harlan drafts his opinion, he ought to read that book. Harlan for whatever reason decides to humor his clerk and takes that man’s copy home with him.

And then Harlan does some remarkable things. He stays up well into the night reading the book. And then he has a change of mind. He realizes that if Ali was adhering to this worldview–however history may judge it now–he was in fact opposed to all wars. The US Government had argued that Ali was a racist member of a racist organization. Harlan decided that Ali was a member of a religion who legitimately opposed all wars. Which is important, because that gives Ali legal standing to be a conscientious objector. And so Harlan, as conservative a justice as there was on the court, decides that he’s changing his vote. He tells Chief Justice Burger this, and the Chief is NOT happy, and not having it. What the hell Harlan!

Burger had reason to be pissed. For one thing, it is and was very unusual for a Justice to flip his vote outside conference and chambers. For another, if the Court found that Ali was a conscientious objector, it would give that right to all other Black Muslims, and Burger didn’t want to set that precedent. Finally, with a decision locked at 4-4, the lower court’s sentence of 5 years would be upheld anyway. In such deadlocks no opinion would be written or read. Ali would simply learn that he was going to jail, but not why…which was one of the reasons the Court accepted the case in the first place.

Harlan was insistent. Ali was indeed a conscientious objector on religious grounds by US law in Harlan’s view. But then Justice Potter Stewart (who, along with Brennan and Douglas had found Ali to have standing to be a conscientious objector in the original minority on the Court) comes up with a compromise. Why can’t the Court just declare an error in the lower court case and set Ali free? By doing so, the Court can avoid setting a precedent that the majority finds objectionable. It wouldn’t make it easier to be a conscientious objector either, which was one other thing the Court wanted to avoid. It would simply say that in this case, Ali’s conviction and sentence were in error.

That was fine with Hugo Black, Byron White, and Harry Blackmun. They agreed to go along with it. That left the vote at 7-1 to set Ali free. Burger, who’d been furious about Harlan’s vote switch, realized if he left his name on the decision (on which no opinion would be written) as the “1” in a 7-1 decision that it would look particularly bad. It would carry overtones of racism that he didn’t personally feel at all. On that basis, he too relented, making the final decision 8-0 to overturn Ali’s jail sentence.

And so Ali was free to resume his professional boxing career in the 1970s…by one of the narrowest of 8-0 unanimous decisions ever rendered.

That’s right, I saw a movie about that on HBO a while back now that you mention it. I think Christopher Plummer played Justice Harlan.

Thanks for the story, Triggercut. And RIP to The Greatest.

Edit: A good read, Muhammad Ali: Last Tango in Vegas by Hunter Thompson.

Triggercut - I just want to say I love reading what you write and you’ve even outdone yourself here. Bravo. Nice read & I learned something to boot!

Thanks T, Rich.

And Pogue, I didn’t know about the movie. Was it made for HBO? Love to see it.

Damn, I almost missed that awesome post by only having a vague interest in the passing of Ali.

Had to look it up, I blanked on the name. It’s called Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. Pretty good cast, as I mentioned Christopher Plummer is John Harlan, Frank Langella is Chief Justice Burger, and the guy whose name I can never remember but only think of him as the really angry judge from Ghostbusters 2 is William Douglas (name is Harris Yulin, by the way). Oh and this is funny, apparently Barry Levinson played Potter Stewart. Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie, looks like it’s available on Amazon Prime.

BTW, my main source for that story is from an excellent book on the Supreme Court that I recommend called The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong. It’s filled with fascinating stuff like that.

There is also the interesting angle that Ali had twice failed the Army’s entrance IQ test. He was even watched while taking it a second time. These failures should have kept him out of the draft. But then the Army changed the minimum test requirement and suddenly Ali was reclassified A-1.

Ali supposedly learned about this after believing he was safe from the draft. He was supposed to have said later that “I always said I was the greatest, not the smartest.”

Full story about the Supreme Court case here.

Found this today: Billy Crystal special 15 round tribute to Ali. A really nice summary. Ali is in the audience and you can tell he really enjoys it.

Street Near Madison Square Garden Temporarily Named ‘Muhammad Ali Way’

Great site with many “best of” shots of Ali

A lot of black and white pictures with good explanations. Really nice.