Cassius Marcellus Clay, 25, who began the day as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, refused induction into the Army Friday. He faces imprisonment and a fine, but legal sparring by his lawyers may keep him out of prison two years or more.
The judgment of the sports world, however, was much swifter. The World Boxing Assn. and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately announced Clay had been stripped of his title. The WBA said a world tournament would be held to name a new champion, and New York immediately suspended Clay’s boxing license.
But Clay insisted, “I will take my title to prison with me.”
Clay — or as his induction papers said, “otherwise known as Muhammad Ali” — made good his promise not to take the traditional step forward that would have symbolized and confirmed his induction.
Member of Black Muslim Faith
He said his decision was based on his conviction that he could not remain true to his religious beliefs and serve in the military. He is a member of the Black Muslim faith, and Muhammad Ali is his Muslim name.
Clay is liable to criminal prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department. Maximum penalty upon conviction would be five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Asst. U.S. Dist. Atty. Morton Susman, who will prosecute the case, said it might take as long as two or more years after a conviction before Clay would go to prison. This, Susman indicated, could be caused by appeals and other legal maneuvers by Clay’s lawyers.
In a statement which Clay distributed to the press, he said, “I strongly object to the fact that so many newspapers have given to the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand: Either I go to jail or go to the Army.
“There is another alternative,” he argued, “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 to jail. In the end I am confident that justice will come my way for the truth must eventually prevail.”
Clay’s attorneys, H.C. Covington and Quinnan Hodges, immediately refiled a 67-page suit which contends that the Selective Service System showed racial and religious prejudice and yielded to public pressure by classifying Clay 1-A instead of giving him the 4-D status of a minister. He claims to be a Black Muslim minister.
Susman, who was present at the induction ceremony as an observer, said he would take steps immediately to indict Clay on the criminal charge. He added this might take 30 to 60 days.
Fred Drogula, Justice Department civil division attorney, said, “Clay already has had his day in court and cannot raise the same issues again.”
Clay has lost a succession of appeals, first to the Selective Service board and then on up the judicial ladder to the U.S. Supreme Court. He has appealed for exemption, as a conscientious objector and as a minister.
Small but noisy groups of demonstrators kept active in front of the induction center building in downtown Houston throughout Friday morning. It did not turn out to be a cohesive group, but rather an impromptu, happenstance gathering.
Identified among the demonstrators were black power advocates, anti-Vietnam war protesters, Black Muslims, a Philadelphian of Quaker persuasion, hippies and others with just time on their hands. Two of the young male demonstrators reportedly burned their draft cards.
At one point, a dozen of the demonstrators entered the building and went up the elevator to the induction center on the third floor. There, a sign saying “draft beer, not men” being carried by a girl was seized by a U.S. marshal. No trouble resulted, however.
Clay’s attorneys fought through the night Thursday to obtain a stay for their client. They lost a round in the court of District Judge Allen B. Hannay, who denied the suit which claimed exemption for Clay on grounds he is a Muslim minister.
The lawyers lost another round shortly before midnight in the den of the home of Judge John R. Brown of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Brown, after listening to three hours of argument, ruled that he lacked authority to grant an injunction to halt Clay’s induction.
Clay stepped out of the cab in front of the induction center 20 minutes early for his 8 a.m. appointment and stepped into a swarm of reporters, photographers and television technicians.
He was dressed in a metallic blue silk suit, a powder blue short-sleeved shirt and black loafers.
Clay, mumbling “no comment” into a fence of outstretched microphones, made it to the third floor in about 10 minutes.
In the throng were a dozen of so young girls, Negro and white, who giggled as they maneuvered for a place near the heavyweight champ.
As Clay and the other prospective draftees moved slowly through the processing routines — physical examination, review of records, filling out of forms — the small group of demonstrators gradually increased in size but never exceeded 50.
During the process, Clay frequently kidded and joked with the other draftees. “I can joke because I’m not going,” the champion said.
Once, he even shadowboxed for his companions and went into a version of his famous “Ali shuffle” in shorts and socks.
Covington, a Clay attorney, made it clear to reporters that, regardless of whether he wins a stay of criminal proceeding against Clay, he will try to move the case to the Supreme Court for a ruling on the constitutionality of the government’s actions in respect to Clay.
Covington indicated he is basing his case on the provability of Clay’s vocation as a minister.
“Muhammad Ali,” he said, “spends at least 90% of his time as a minister and 10% fighting and training for fights. Boxing is his avocation.”
But the action of the sports authorities could effectively stall Clay’s fighting career, entailing a loss to him of millions. Clay himself has said he may lose as much as $10 million.
In his statement, Clay described himself as a minister of Islam and thanked a number of persons and groups. These included Elijah Muhammad, head of the Black Muslims; thousands of Muslims in Pakistan “who have written expressing a concern for my future”; Floyd McKissick, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality; and the secretary general of the High Council for Islamic Affairs, “who delivered a petition in the name of 600 million Muslims to President Johnson denouncing the decision to draft me into the Army.”
When Clay left the induction center, he returned to his plush suite at the Hotel Americana, where he called his mother in Louisville.
“Everything is all right,” he told her. “Everything is all over with. It’s a long day and I’m tired.”
Note: This article was originally published on April 29, 1967.