The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) deeply mourns the passing of our former client Muhammad Ali, one of the most powerful, charismatic and inspiring figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1970 LDF represented Mr. Ali in Ali v. Division of State Athletic Comm’n, and the following year in Clay v. United States.
In Clay, LDF along with Mr. Ali’s personal attorney Chauncey Eskridge was successful in overturning Mr. Ali’s 1967 criminal conviction for refusing to be inducted into the draft for combat in the Vietnam War. Mr. Ali had declared himself a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs as a member of the Nation of Islam. In Ali v. State Athletic Comm’n, LDF successfully challenged the decision of the New York State Athletic Commission to deny Mr. Ali a license to box in the State of New York based on his refusal to comply with the draft order.
Muhammad Ali, born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, transformed the sport of boxing. He won a gold medal in boxing at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In 1964 in an upset victory, he knocked out veteran Sonny Liston to become world champion. Although Ali is rightfully remembered as the “greatest boxer of all time,” it was his bold and unapologetic presentation of Black masculinity and excellence that shaped his persona as a charismatic and compelling international figure.
It was Ali’s courageous stance as a conscientious objector who refused to serve in the Vietnam War that earned him notoriety and made him one of the most polarizing and empowering figures the sports world had ever seen. He was criminally convicted for his resistance to the draft in 1967, and was unable to box again until 1971, when his conviction was overturned by the United States Supreme court. Despite this forced hiatus from his boxing career during what many deemed the prime of his physical strength, Ali came back to dominate the sport in the 1970s, winning the championship twice more in iconic boxing matches against formidable opponents. His historic fights in the U.S., in Zaire, Africa and in the Philippines are regarded as among the greatest boxing matches. Ali described himself as “the greatest of all time” – a designation by which he was widely known.
“Muhammad Ali presented an example of Black manhood that was mesmerizing and empowering. He was eloquent, proud and unapologetic in his belief in his own power and excellence,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of LDF. “We are proud to have represented him in the critical cases that vindicated his right as a conscientious objector, and that allowed him to return to boxing,” she added.
A proud and ardent Muslim, Ali converted from Christianity to Islam, changing his given name, Cassius Clay – which he called his “slave name” — to one given to him by the Nation of Islam. He was equally outspoken about his pride as a Black man, and tied his opposition to the Vietnam War to the issue of ongoing oppression against Black people in the United States.
Ali was stripped of his passport and systematically denied a boxing license in every state after refusing to be inducted into the armed forces in 1967. LDF represented him in Muhammad Ali v. Division of State Athletic Com’n, N.Y. successfully arguing that the deprivation of a license to fight violated Ali’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection of laws.
Michael Meltsner, who as LDF’s first assistant counsel represented Ali in the case that restored his boxing career said, “When they [the NY Athletic Commission] took away Ali’s right to box in 1967, they claimed it was because he had refused induction in the armed forces. But the state freely licensed felons, including men who had killed, raped and robbed. It was clear that the Athletic Commission sought to punish him because he was an outspoken black man and a member of the Nation of Islam.”
Ali’s license was subsequently reinstated.
LDF also represented Ali in Clay v. United States, an appeal of his 1967 felony conviction for refusing to report for induction into the armed forces. Justice Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s first President and Director-Counsel, recused himself from the case. Reportedly, the remaining Supreme Court Justices originally decided, 5-3, that Ali was not a conscientious objector and should go to jail. However, Justice Harlan changed his view after reading the Nation of Islam treatise book at the suggestion of his law clerks, and Justice Stewart was able to sway the opinions of the other members of the court, resulting in a unanimous 8-0 decision in Ali’s favor.
Ali spoke passionately about justice. In 1967 after his arrest for refusing to submit to the draft he stated “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: either I go to the jail or to the Army. There is another alternative and that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my Constitutional rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.”
His courage and conviction made him a global symbol of racial pride and self-respect, inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King who in 1967 went public with his own opposition to the Vietnam War, instilling hope in Nelson Mandela during his imprisonment on Robben Island, and encouraging Billie Jean King in her fight to win equality for women in sports.
During the peak of his career, Ali was often vilified for his objection to the Vietnam War and because of his bold, unapologetic statements about his own prowess and good looks. Many Blacks who had never heard of the Nation of Islam, were introduced to the group by Ali’s unwavering commitment to the group and its leader. In later years, after Ali retired and was stricken with Parkinson’s disease and unable to speak publicly, he became a figure of unity and widespread affection.
“Without a doubt, he will rest in power. Our hearts go out to his family,” said Sherrilyn Ifill. Mr. Ali leaves behind a wife and nine children.
Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although LDF was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights. In media attributions, please refer to us as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or LDF.