On June 28, 1971, the Supreme Court of the US ruled to overturn Muhammad Ali's conviction for draft dodging in Clay v. United States
In short, Muhammad Ali filed for conscientious objector status when, in 1967, he appeared for his induction into the US Army in Texas but refused to step forward when his name was called. He was convicted for dodging the draft and stripped of his boxing title.
Ali's objection to the Vietnam War was both religious and political. As a member of Nation of Islam, he publicly declared that he would not fight in any war that was not declared by Allah. He also was very critical of the war politically: "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 while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?"
Sadly, I can't post Ali's most famous quote on the subject in it's full unedited form here but you can use your imagination or just follow the link: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me n..."
His conviction was overturned on an anticlimactic procedural basis. In a very short and to-the-point opinion, SCOTUS ruled that because the Court of Appeals did not specify which of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status that Ali failed, the case was impossible to determine.
However, that simple ruling obscures the contemporary relevance of the case. According to Bob Woodward's book on SCOTUS, The Brethren
(Google Books link
) SCOTUS chose to hear the case due to Ali's prominence as a black athlete. Objectors and antiwar demonstrators were being arrested by the thousands, and the racial overtones of the case were not lost on SCOTUS.
Because one justice, Thurgood Marshall, recused himself, only 8 justices presided over the case. The case threatened to go to a 4-4 deadlock, which means that SCOTUS would not have issued an opinion. Ali would have been arrested without him - or the American public - knowing why. Justice Potter Stewart suggested the procedural decision as a compromise.
The case set no new precedent nor did it provide any novel interpretations of existing precdent. From a legal perspective, it's barely a historical blip - a minor ruling. Historically, though, for a famous black Muslim, a member of Nation of Islam - an organization popularly seen as separatist, even seditionist - to object to the war in such an outspoken way was not a minor occurrence.
We've had a few threads here regarding civil disobedience; whether humans have an inviolate duty to follow the law even when it conflicts with their own consciences. I don't think that we do. I believe that if a legal prescription is unjust - whether that prescription is a law, a command, a writ, or whatever we want to call it - we not only have the moral option to refuse it, in some cases we may have a positive duty
to refuse it.
This may have been easier to remember in 1967-1971 than it is today. It had only been a few years since Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem
, in which she famously observed that Eichmann committed atrocities not out of violent impulse or sociopathy, but out of simple conformity.
It remains true, however. In 2004, Philip Zimbardo (yes, that Philip Zimbardo
) interviewed Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick
, highest ranking officer convicted of torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. From that interview, Zimbardo testified that Frederick "had no sadistic or pathological tendencies." To use Zimbardo's metaphor, Frederick was not a bad apple who spoiled the barrel, he was a good apple spoiled by a bad barrel.
Dissenters, even deserters, form the necessary conscience of a healthy democracy. Muhammad Ali risked his career and his legacy to refuse to serve in an unjust war, so even though he never wore a uniform, I consider him a war hero.