Today, Jan. 17, Muhammad Ali turns 70 years old. Of course we know Ali as one of the best athletes of all time. But history’s greatest boxer and most prolific hype man was more than mere physical talent and boastful, colorful rhetoric. So awesome were his accomplishments in the ring that his fights outside the ring rarely get attention.
More went on in 1971 for Ali than “The Fight of the Century”; that year he was also fighting for religious freedom and his principles against the Vietnam War. Four years earlier, Ali refused the draft as a conscientious objector, was almost immediately stripped of his heavyweight title and was convicted of being a draft dodger. Ali knew the risk of his stance and — for a man who knew nothing else at the time but boxing — this was a hefty price to pay.
But clearly, Ali was a fighter inside and outside the ring. In exile from the sport, Ali resorted to speaking engagements at college campuses around the country. Although the reviews were mixed, he added tremendously to the debate about the war and came to symbolize something that transcended boxing.
Ali “helped give an entire people a belief in themselves and the will to make themselves better,” the late Arthur Ashe said. “But Ali didn’t just change the image that African-Americans have of themselves. He opened the eyes of a lot of white people to the potential of African-Americans: who we are and what we can be.”
While gradually able to make his comeback in the ring, Ali nevertheless continued his fight in the court — all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won. While the court’s unanimous opinion in Ali’s favor was grounded in a technicality, a behind-the-scenes look at the case reveals the true basis of the decision and the court’s inner-workings. The Brethren, co-authored by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, details how the court came to its unanimous decision despite the recusal of Justice Thurgood Marshall.
According to the authors, the remaining eight justices initially voted 5-3 to uphold Ali’s conviction. But Justice John M. Harlan changed his vote and deadlocked the court after reading background information on Black Muslims and being convinced of Ali’s sincerity as a conscientious objector.
A compromise brokered by Justice Potter Stewart eventually broke the deadlock and was agreed to by all eight. In essence, the court decided that, because the board which denied Ali’s consciensious objector status did not state a basis for its decision, the Supreme Court could not uphold Ali’s conviction.
Ali’s attorney, Chauncey Eskridge, who also was attorney and adviser to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reportedly considered his representation of Ali in Clay v. United States to be a crowning achievement in his career. I think it’s good for attorneys to meditate on cases like these sometimes – inspiration for the young and a reminder for the more experienced.