Friday, June 10, 2016

Honoring Muhammad Ali: Recalling Atlanta, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960's on Their Outspoken Anti-war Positions 
I Ain't Goin' to Vietnam

Up tight? That's right!
Ain't gonna go!
Hell no!!
(1) I ain't goin' to Vietnam, to kill my brother for the man!
(2) I ain't goin' to Vietnam, I got work here in Harlem, Watts and Birmingham!
(3) I ain't goin' to Vietnam, the Vietcong is like I am.
(From the Original Poem by Matthew Jones & Elaine Lavon from the book War and the Pity of War, by Neil Philip.)

by Heather Gray
The above was a chant many of us used in marches against the Vietnam War in the 1960's. It resonates with the sentiments of Muhammad Ali, as in 1966 he said wisely "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong... No Vietcong ever called me nigger." (Muhammad Ali)

And in the Spring of 1967, he said  "No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end."   (Muhammad Ali)

He was right, of course.

As a young white woman in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1960s, I, too, became enamored with the images and powerful voice of the great Muhammad Ali while he stood up to the authorities and raised his arm in defiance. I can still see him in all his splendor surrounded by his supporters as he spoke out against the Vietnam War. His was an extraordinary act of boldness. He gave me courage as well!

I, too, was heartbroken about the war in Vietnam.

On August 23 1966, Ali became engaged in what some considered the greatest fight of his life, when he applied with the "Selective Service for conscientious objector status on religious grounds (as a minister with the Nation of Islam)" which began years of court battles leading all the way up to the Supreme Court when, in 1971, the Court overturned his draft conviction. (Muhammad Ali)

Then, on April 4, 1967, some eight months after Ali filed for an objector status, Atlanta's renowned leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous anti-Vietnam speech at Riverside Church in New York entitled, "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence". King had also been empowered by Muhammad Ali to then break his silence about his opposition to the war and, like Ali, he was criticized by the press and other Black leaders. I remember being stunned by the press and others after King made his speech against the war and then becoming the "internationalist".

I wondered how on earth they would expect King to not speak out against injustice whether in the Mississippi Delta in the United States or the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

When Dr. Martin Luther King came out against the war in Vietnam in 1967, he was criticized by the mainstream press and his own advisors who told him to not focus on "foreign" policy. But Dr. King forged ahead and to justify his new stand, said publicly, "Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all-black and brown and poor-victims of the same system of oppression." (Zirin)

Muhammad Ali and Dr. King were also in communication with each other as expressed in David Zirin's 2015 article "Dr. Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and What Their Secret Friendship Teaches Us Today".  Zirin reveals fascinating FBI documentation about the communication between King and Ali, thanks to activists breaking into the FBI offices and stealing papers - ironically during the Frazier-Ali fight in 1971. The activists wisely knew the agents would be watching the fight!

Dr. Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali shared a bond in their commitment against war and for social justice. It wasn't a popular bond and it deserves to be remembered.

....As the 1960s propelled forward, both men were part of a common black freedom struggle that was blurring the lines between "nationalism" vs. "integrationism" taking on not only the legal barriers to integration set forth by Jim Crow but the intractable racism of the North. We know of their friendship only because of those invaluable stenographers at the FBI. Here is one FBI wiretap summary with Martin Luther King Jr. in which Muhammad Ali is referred to derisively as "C", for Cassius Clay.

"MLK spoke to C, they exchanged greetings. C invited MLK to be his guest at the next championship fight. MLK said he would like to attend. C said he is keeping up with MLK and MLK is his brother and he's with him 100 percent but can't take any chances, and that MLK should take care of himself and should 'watch out for them whities.'"

(Interestingly, we know of these wiretaps only because of the March 8, 1971 break-in of activists into an FBI office. They chose March 8 because it was the night of first Frazier-Ali and they knew the guards would be distracted with the rest of the country.)

Ali and Dr. King saw their connection become unbreakable in 1967 when King made the courageous decision, against the wishes of his advisers, to take a stand against President Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam. By this time, Ali had already become the most visible draft resister in the country, standing strong despite the stripping of his heavyweight title and the threat of a five-year prison sentence in Leavenworth.

On October 21, 1967, I was part of the major anti-Vietnam War march in Washington, DC, known ultimately as the "March on the Pentagon".  In 1967, I, along with four others, in my red Volkswagan no less, made the relentless twelve-hour drive from Atlanta to Washington, DC to be part of the protest.

With throngs of people from all over the country, the "March on the Pentagon" was inspiring as we advanced in great strides along with protest chants throughout the capitol city on October 21. There were estimates of some 100,000 protestors in DC that day.

Ali and King had helped significantly to inspire this momentum of bold resistance.protest! They became spokespeople for us all.

I am eternally grateful to Muhammad Ali for his tremendous courage and in teaching us all about the importance of loving the other and taking a principled stand for justice, even and especially in the face of tremendous financial and personal loss.

Thank you, Muhammad Ali, leader of us all!

HEATHER GRAY produces "Just Peace" on WRFG-Atlanta 89.3 FM covering local, regional, national and international news. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia and can be reached at

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