Ali Enlightened Me On Vietnam

I like to say it was older fellow college students who changed my mind about the Vietnam War.

But Muhammad Ali crystallized things.

The older students opened my eyes, true. Guys I hung around with in German class, in Reserve Officer Training Corps exercises, in a fraternity, in charity drives … I knew these guys. They knew me. I trusted their judgment.

When they came back from Vietnam – and when Tom Grant and Pat Brophy did not come back – they said, in increasing numbers, “We shouldn’t be there. It’s a civil war. We’re getting maimed and killed for nothing vital to American security.”

Some of these guys had been gung-ho ROTC cadets eager to go to Vietnam and fight, too. In the early 1960s, most of us felt that way. We trusted our Presidents. Eisenhower had led us to victory in World War II. Kennedy, a war hero himself, had the charisma to be our ideal figure of a young, dynamic leader.

So when former students back from Vietnam visited us at college, or connected with us at church or socially, their antiwar views came as something of a shock. We had grown up believing that the United States only fought justifiable wars.

I didn’t change all at once. I heard the criticisms and the anger, but I resisted them. In my early 20s, I wasn’t sophisticated enough to differentiate between the country I loved and the government that might be, could be, turned out to be wrong.

Other events happened. JFK was killed. Lyndon Johnson expanded the Vietnam War, despite his 1964 campaign promises to do no such thing. I had never thought, “A President might lie to get elected.” By comparison with JFK, Johnson was old, arrogant, unlikeable. Then along came Nixon, who shrank into rodent-like ugliness as his Presidency lengthened.

But in 1966, there stood Ali. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he said.

He, too, was iconic, admirable, everything a young man might dream of being. He was my age, he was an untouchable blur in the boxing ring, he was funny yet outrageous in a way that young people rebelling against authority loved.

He beat Liston, the “ugly bear,” twice. He beat everybody he fought, even predicting the round.

He had been a pro-American Olympic boxing champion.

And yet he refused to be drafted. At the time, that was heinous.

But he didn’t flee to Canada.

He didn’t use his prestige and his money to avoid the consequences of refusing to be drafted.

“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 didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Poor little black people and babies and children and women. How can I shoot them poor people?”

And then he put himself on the line.

“Just take me to jail.”

Powerful stuff. Just “for what” were we in Vietnam? For some abstruse “domino theory”?

Ali did not attack the troops who were doing the fighting. He attacked the government that ordered the fighting. And he stood tall about it.

I resisted his reasoning, condemned his rhetoric.

Then I saw that he paid the price for his actions.

“I’m not going to Canada. I’m right here,” he said.

He didn’t go to jail because, like any other person accused of a nonviolent crime, he could stay free on bail during appeals.

That he did, for three long years, while his case went through the courts.

He lost his job. “Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up,” he once said.

Boxing commissions throughout the country, angered by what they viewed as his unpatriotic stance, revoked his license. He supported himself by speaking on college campuses. And he lost the three most productive years of a fighter’s career.

During those years, I came to see that the Vietnam War was wrong.

Muhammad Ali, a superb fighter but a loudmouthed, sometimes cruel, usually outrageous man, helped me to see that.

He earned my respect, for his courage in standing up for himself, staying in America, enduring the insults (and firing right back, too) and accepting the consequences of his actions.

You wouldn’t think a black kid from Kentucky, a boxer, would have that effect on a white kid from Pennsylvania, who had never been in a serious fight in his life.

But he did.

So when he died last week, this Christian old man said a prayer for the repose of the soul of a Muslim old man.

And I said something else: “Thank you for showing me.”

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Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: