It’s April 28th, 1967 at the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston, Texas; twelve years into the Vietnam War.
It’s just before 8 AM, and a number of reporters and photographers are waiting outside for the arrival of the reigning boxing heavyweight world champion: Muhammad Ali.
Ali has been vocal about his opposition to the ongoing Vietnam War, publicly stating he is a conscientious objector on the grounds of his Islamic faith. But, his application for conscientious objection has been declined. So, today, Ali is required to attend the entrance center for a formal induction into the US Army.
As the taxi carrying Ali arrives, journalists swarm the car, their cameras, and questions at the ready.
But as the boxer steps out, he remains tightlipped until he reaches the center’s entrance. Ali is not camera-shy. But today he has elected to let his actions do the talking.
Inside the center, Ali sails through the physical and medical exams and joins seven other men, lined shoulder to shoulder.
As the soon-to-be inductees await their final instructions, the commanding figure of Lieutenant Steven Dunkley enters the room. He tells the men that once their name is called, they must step forward to be received into the US Army.
Lieutenant Dunkley reads out the names of Ali’s peers, and all six men step forward. Then, he reads Ali’s name aloud. But Ali’s feet do not move. The lieutenant repeats his request. But Ali stays rooted to his spot. Undeterred, the lieutenant asks Ali to step forward a third time. But, again, the boxer stays perfectly still.
Ali locks eyes with the lieutenant as the officer marches over to him. His face remains impassive as Lieutenant Dunkley explains that, should he refuse to step forward, he will be committing a criminal offense.
Ali nods in understanding, and Lieutenant Dunkley returns to his former position. For a final time, the officer calls for Ali to step forward. But again, Ali is completely still. Exasperated, Lieutenant Dunkley gives up and leads the other inductees away for training, leaving Ali to face the consequences of his defiance.
Without hesitation, Ali then exits the building, publicly signaling his refusal to join the army. As he makes his way through the throng of rabid reporters, he holds his head high, satisfied with his decision — no matter the cost.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali is at the peak of his career. But his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces will change everything. Convicted of draft evasion and faced with a five-year prison sentence, Ali has put his reputation and career on the line. But, through it all, Ali will not waiver in his conviction, demonstrating a dedication to his values that will turn the renowned athlete into one of the decade’s most prominent antiwar activists following his refusal to join the US army on April 28th, 1967.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 28th, 1967: Muhammad Ali Refuses Induction into the US Army.
Act One: Ali Vs The Summit
It’s June 4th, 1967 in an office block on the East Side of Cleveland, Ohio.
Inside, twelve men sit around a circular table, ready to begin a meeting. Well-known to one another and to the world, the participants are among the nation’s most prominent and well-respected Black athletes. Except for one: Muhammad Ali.
Since his decision to refuse induction into the army five weeks ago, Ali has fallen from grace. The response to his disobedience has been swift and sharp. Only hours after his exit from the Houston induction center, Ali was stripped of his boxing license and his title as the heavyweight champion of the world. The very same day, he was arrested and charged with draft evasion.
The public has also been harsh. Ali’s decision to refuse conscription has caused outrage so strong that some have labeled him the most hated man in America. With the Vietnam War at its height, much of the nation still supports American involvement in the conflict — including some of the men sitting beside Ali today.
But, despite their reservations over his position, this collection of influential Black figures has assembled to hear the boxer out and urge Ali to accept a new olive branch. Recently, the American government offered to drop Ali’s draft evasion charges if he agreed to abandon his antiwar stance and perform a series of boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops. Ali has already turned down the deal. But the men around the table urge him to reconsider.
They worry that at the young age of 25, Ali doesn’t understand the full repercussions of what he’s doing. They advise him to cut his losses and take the government’s deal. Many of them have already served in the military and assure him there’s little to lose, promising him that his career and a lifetime of success will be waiting for him on the other side of his service. It's a lot better than facing prison time and a permanently tarnished reputation.
But none of their arguments sway Ali. He already knows his decision is bad for his career, his livelihood, and his image. But he assures them that his faith and his principles are worth far more to him than wealth or prestige. To him, the matter goes beyond sport, fame, and money; at its core, it’s about faith and justice. Ali’s Muslim faith restricts him from fighting in any war not sanctioned by Allah, and America’s racism further fuels his aversion to joining the army. He has no interest in supporting the slaughter of seemingly innocent people abroad, especially for a country whose prejudice hurts and kills its own Black population daily. Surely, Ali reasons, as Black Americans themselves, the men around the table can understand this point.
The men struggle to respond. Even if they had a satisfactory rebuttal, they sense that it won't be of any use; the strength of Ali’s resolve is clear to all of them. But, more than that, his sincerity and steadfast dedication to his faith and principles has inspired them too. Though this meeting was arranged to change Ali’s mind, the boxer has turned the tables. After several hours of discussion, the skepticism that filled the room at the beginning of the meeting is replaced by a strong sense of understanding and unity.
The men leave the meeting unanimous in their decision to support Ali in his protest and legal case. It’s a momentous change of direction; all of the men are aware of the current public opinion of Ali, and they know what supporting him may mean for their careers. They could be made pariahs. But like Ali, they no longer care. It’s time for them to do what they feel is right.
After the meeting, the twelve men will hold a press conference to publicly declare their support for Ali and his right to be a conscientious objector. Their stand in solidarity will capture the nation’s attention and put their own names and careers on the line. In time, this display will become recognized as one of the most significant civil rights acts in sports history. But it will only come after years of struggle in which Ali will take on his most daunting foe yet: the United States judicial system.
Act Two: Ali Vs Induction
It’s June 20th, 1967 in central Houston, just under two months since Muhammad Ali refused induction into the army and just two weeks since Ali’s fellow Black athletes stood in solidarity with the boxer.
Inside a federal courthouse, Ali now sits before a judge, ready to stand trial for the draft evasion that has turned the sports star into one of the nation’s most reviled figures.
Despite the support of his contemporaries, Ali has continued to face immense public criticism. But he remains unfazed by the backlash. For him, the matter is still one of principles, and his values have not changed, so neither will his antiwar stance — even if it means fighting a losing battle. His resignation is evident in his demeanor inside the courtroom. As he prepares for his case to be presented, there is an air of defeat about him — as if Ali recognizes that his conviction must be imminent.
As the jurors enter the courtroom, this impression only deepens. Ali is not shocked to find that the jury is made up entirely of white, unsympathetic faces. He laughs to himself as a sense of certainty washes over him. It’s a feeling he knows well, as it's one he experiences every time he steps into the ring. But then usually it’s victory that feels certain, not defeat.
At the very least, Ali is grateful he’s not alone in today’s fight. Alongside him is his attorney Hayden Covington. He has one of the best records when it comes to defending conscientious objectors, and he hopes Muhammad Ali will become his most publicized victory to date.
As proceedings get underway, Hayden opens the case by using a tactic that has proved successful with defending Jehovah’s Witnesses. Hayden turns to the jury and lays out his ‘minister’ defense. Since conscription began, ministers, priests, and seminarians have been all exempt from the draft. Hayden argues that Ali, who is very vocal about his religious beliefs and preaches often at public events, is clearly a minister. Thus, he is unable and ineligible to fight.
Hayden is confident in this line of defense because it has worked for so many of his previous clients. But not today.
The jury is unconvinced. After just 21 minutes of deliberation, the jury find Ali guilty of draft evasion. And to prove that nobody is above the law, not even the heavyweight champion of the world, the judge decides to make an example of him, handing down the maximum penalty for his offense. Ali leaves the courtroom with both a 5-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine.
But as he leaves the courtroom facing a prison sentence, Ali maintains a calm demeanor. He feels misunderstood, and that his faith has not been taken seriously. But this is the result he expected, and Ali knows this is only the first round in the bout against inequality and injustice.
Over the next four years, Ali and his legal team will take on a lengthy process of appealing his conviction, allowing him to stay out of jail while the case heads to the Supreme Court for its ultimate decision. And meanwhile, for three of these years, Ali’s boxing ban will remain in effect. But in 1970, Ali is permitted to return to the ring and resume his professional career. Shortly after, he faces one of his biggest fights ever against reigning heavyweight champion, Joe Frazier.
The match is the first time that two undefeated boxers who have held the world heavyweight title fight each other for the same title. But its significance runs even deeper than that. In contrast to Ali, Frazier supports US involvement in Vietnam. So with each fighter serving as a symbol for two sides of American society, the match takes on a political charge.
In the end, Ali loses the fight — his first-ever professional loss. And the defeat shakes the boxer and he struggles to come to terms with the blemish on his record. But the hope of victory elsewhere will revive his spirit.
One month after his fight with Joe Frazier, the Supreme Court will hear Ali’s case. By the time it reaches the nation’s highest court, public opinion on the Vietnam War will have drastically changed. And the opinions Ali expressed four years prior will become widespread among the American public, leading many to re-examine the boxer’s stance, including those presiding over the Supreme Court.
Act Three: Ali Vs USA
It’s June 28th, 1971 on the south side of Chicago, four years after Muhammad Ali was convicted of draft evasion.
Inside a corner store, Ali greets the shopkeeper with a grin as he buys some groceries. The cashier smiles back and offers a word of encouragement.
Ali’s draft evasion case has continued to be big news since his conviction four years ago. But the narrative around it has drastically changed. Now, many Americans are on the boxer’s side and are rooting for his conviction to be overturned by the Supreme Court.
It’s been two months since the justices heard Ali’s case, and the court should be making their decision any day now. But despite his rise in popularity, Ali is still unsure whether the court will share the public’s newfound compassion. But he tries not to dwell on the matter too much. He knows that regardless of the consequences that may follow, he has done the right thing, and that’s all that matters to him.
But as Ali exits the shop, his focus is pulled right back to the case. Because as soon as he starts walking down the street, he hears rushed footsteps following him. Ali turns to see the shopkeeper running toward him with tears in his eyes. Before Ali can get a word out, the cashier wraps him in a hug and informs him of the big news he just heard over the radio: the Supreme Court has overturned Ali's conviction.
Their decision is unanimous, with the justices citing a procedural error that occurred in 1967 when Ali first appealed the draft board’s rejection of his application to be a conscientious objector. The board failed to state their reason for their decision, therefore, denying Ali due process of law. Though the Supreme Court was originally torn, the discovery of this error helped tip the court in Ali’s favor. And later, it will come out that one justice in particular also pushed his peers to overturn the case, convinced of Ali’s sincerity in his faith, and therefore, in his right to be a conscientious objector.
The decision will become a watershed moment in Ali’s life and career, as well as the nation’s civil rights movement. The boxer’s tenacity and commitment to his beliefs will not be forgotten. In the ring, Ali will go on to defy expectations and reclaim his heavyweight title in 1974. But, after retiring from boxing seven years later, Ali will devote his time to activism and philanthropy, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. But upon his death in 2016, Ali’s greatest fight will be remembered as his battle with the US government. His decision to endure hardship and fight for what he felt right will be regarded as his crowning achievement, a feat sparked when Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted on April 28th, 1967.
Next on History Daily. May 1st, 1941. Orson Welles’s revolutionary debut “Citizen Kane” premieres in New York after a bitter battle to suppress the film.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Luke Lonergan.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.