The Defining Generation
The war in
This meant then that
being drafted was not a sentence
to serve in combat. In fact during the Vietnam War, two-thirds of those
serving in uniform were volunteers. The other 3 million (out of 27 million
draft age men) were individuals who either enlisted or who volunteered for
While it may well have seemed during those years that everyone you knew
was getting drafted and sent to Vietnam, the truth was far different. In
fact, slightly less than 650,000 draftees (including those who volunteered
for the draft) saw duty in
Such facts and figures aside, 17,725 men who were conscripted to service died in that war. As such the Selective Service call-up was a dreaded evil and the Draft was an inequitable and somewhat arbitrary fate for young men with plans other than military service. Young women, many of whom lost brothers, husbands, friends and boyfriends blamed the Draft for their losses and railed against it. So too, any number of young men facing potential conscription also demonstrated against and tried to avoid being drafted.
It is important to distinguished between Draft protesters, Draft evaders, and Draft dodgers, a group of young who are often erroneously lumped together as a single group. Draft protesters were often the men who burned their Draft cards in public ceremonies. It is doubtful that anyone ever burned their Draft card alone in the privacy of their own home. The act itself was a voicing of dissent or a means of garnering public support and sometimes sympathy. It was an act that cause revulsion among the older generation and that was seen as inappropriate even by many who opposed the war but understood the meaning of call to duty.
Draft Dodgers on the
other hand, were those who took steps to violate Selective Service laws.
Like a player in the game of dodge-ball moves in order to avoid being
tagged, these were young men who hid out in hippie communes or moved to
Draft evaders, on the other hand, were quite unlike the dodgers. Some avoided conscription by taking advantage of loopholes in the Selective Service laws, a perfectly legal if not sometimes arbitrary option. In 1966 actor George Hamilton was exempted from the Draft after petitioning his own Draft Board for a deferment base on hardships at home, advising them that his mother needed him to care for her. Of course it didn't hurt his cause that at the time he was also dating the daughter of President Lyndon Johnson. And perhaps it was just such inequities in the Selective Service program that most angered the young. They were upset not so much being called to serve as they did to the fact that often the rich, the powerful, and the brightest college students escaped being called up.
Some young men sought
exemption from the Draft due to special situations: sole surviving son,
deferment to complete an education, and even for personal reasons such as
religious prohibitions against military service. The latter are called
Conscientious Objectors and many of them did serve in non-combat roles, at
least two C.O.s earning Medals of Honor, while others belonged to faiths
that prohibited even these non-combat roles. One Conscious Objector was a
high-profile national figure, the World Boxing Heavyweight Champion
Muhammad Ali. His request for C.O. status went unheeded, forcing him to
make some serious personal decisions. The draft may be the one thing in
his career Muhammad Ali never dodge. Instead he stayed home to face up to
the consequences of his convictions. It cost him nearly everything but his
Cassius Marcellus Clay,
Jr., was born in
Unable to get memories of what had happened to Till out of his mind, Cassius and a friend made a late-night trip to the railroad station on Louisville's west side. In his autobiography remembers vividly a billboard that towered over the site of their planned vengeance. It was the image of a white man with finger pointed seemingly directly at him and the words "Uncle Sam Wants You!" The two boys threw rocks at the sign and then placed more rocks on the tracks to inflict damage on their enemy before racing home. Two days later he mustered enough courage to return to the scene of the crime where work crews repaired the damage of a derailment, but what he recalls most vividly was that Uncle Sam was still pointing at him and proclaiming "I Want You."
Years later when Muhammad Ali was a boxing champion, biographers and sports writers tried to paint a less grim childhood that had formed the thinking of the man now a celebrity. Perhaps it was difficult to imagine so great a fighter coming out of poverty and the ghetto so they sugar-coated his past. In fact though both parents worked hard, wages were low (Mrs. Clay made $4 a day) and Clay and his brother Rudy grew up in poverty. The boys were often hungry because there was not sufficient food for a family of four, and because there often wasn't enough money for bus fare for both boys Cassius frequently ran to school. He raced against the bus, making it a part of his daily workout routine. Even in those days he had already determined in his young mind that one day he would be the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, and looked upon the race as a training exercise for his future.
Cassius Clay, Sr., had
been named for Cassius Marcellius Clay of the 19th Century, a white man
In his own youth young Cassius was frequently challenged by others to achieve greatness as had his name sake. He failed to see the 19th century reformer as a great icon of Civil Rights and grew up wanting to become his own man rather than be held in comparison to an ancient white man who had no knowledge of what life was like for a Black child. Once, when a school teacher brought up this personal challenge, Cassius returned to school with The Writings of Cassius M. Clay by Horace Greeley. In that compendium were the abolitionist's own words noting: "I am of the opinion that the Caucasian or white is the superior race; they hve a larger and better formed brain…Historians now unite in making the Caucasian race the first in civilization through all past time." Cassius' argument silenced his teacher and may give many today who faulted him decades ago for his name change cause to understand a young man's thinking.
The incident reflects
the sharp and questioning mind of a man whose intelligence is sometimes
overlooked. Bettie Johnson, who knew him as a boy recalled for a 1997
article in the
That boxing career
evolved out of one of those story-book tragedies that turn into
unbelievable success stories. By 1954 young Cassius' parents had scraped
together enough money to buy their twelve-year old son a bicycle. One day
Cassius rode it down to Fourth and
Over the next six years Clay trained under Joe Martin, a chance acquaintance who opened the door to a young boy's dream. Outside the club he was always training, running, dodging, and constantly jabbing at an invisible opponent. The Courier-Journal noted, "At Central High School in those days, Clay was known as the kid who drank water with garlic in it, who drank milk with raw eggs in it, who wouldn't smoke, who wouldn't drink even carbonated soda pop, who ran and shadow boxed about as often as he walked."[ii]
His dedication paid off
and three years later he had a televised fight. At the time Joe Martin
hosted a local program on WAVE-TV called "Tomorrow's Champions"
and the day following that fight Clay got his first attention from the
local press, a short story that noted: "Cassius Clay established
himself as the No. 1 contender for the light-heavyweight title in the
Golden Gloves competition next January when he scored a fourth-round
technical knockout over Donnie Hall in last night's WAVE-TV fight show
The following year he took that title when he fought another televised bout against Charley Baker. Baker was 23-pounds heavier than Clay and had a reputation…he was known as the bully of the west side and few people would challenge him in or out of the ring. Clay defeated him in a unanimous three-round decision.
Clay's coach and his
friends watched the natural fighter whip foe after foe. It didn't matter
how big they were or how fast they were, Clay had heart, drive and
determination. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves, two National Golden
Gloves, and two AAU titles. He his sights on the 1960 Olympics and the
young boxer won 36 consecutive bouts before Amos Johnson, a left-handed
Marine defeated him in 1959. He never lost another amateur fight and made
the U.S. Pan-Am team, and then lead the nine
In 1962 Clay registered
with the Selective Service in his home town of
When he stepped into
the ring on
Most boxing fans
expected that Liston's huge fists would quickly pummel the kid from
Four weeks after the
fight the Champ announced to the general public that he was a member of
the Nation of Islam. On
Selective Service advised Muhammad Ali that though his second battery of
tests were suspicious and they believed he might have intentionally
failed. They also advised that, suspicion aside, because his writing and
spelling skills did not meet the minimum levels he would continue to be
classified "1-Y." It was a decision that drew ire from some
Americans including a bigoted
In 1965 while Ali was
successfully defending his title against both Sonny Liston and then former
Champ Floyd Patterson, the
In 1966 Ali was gearing
up for a February 1967 bout against Ernie Terell, his 8th fight to defend
his title. He was back home in Louisville when news started to buzz…the
Selective Service had lowered the standards on the minimum test scores for
service and 26-year-old Muhammad Ali was reclassified "1-A," fit
for service and subject to the draft. When a reporter asked if the Champ
would accept the draft, he still hadn't fully made up his mind and simply
responded, "All I want is peace. Peace for myself and peace for the
world. My religion is Islam. I am a follower of the Honorable Elijah
Muhammad. I believe in Allah. I think this is the true way to save the
world. There're five hundred million Muslims all over
Not everyone was proud of Ali who remained the Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Former Champ Gene Tunney sent him a telegram that read, "You have disgraced your title and the American flag and the principles for which it stands. Apologize for your unpatriotic remark or you'll be barred from the ring."[v]
While the actual question of whether or not Muhammad Ali would be drafted remained unsettled, he went on in February 1967 to successfully defend his title against Terrell. Meanwhile he applied for status with the Selective Service as a Conscientious Objector based upon his Islamic beliefs. Two months later he received "Greetings from the President" ordering him to report for induction. Instead of running as Draft dodgers did, and instead of caving in to pressure both inside and outside his circle, he courageously faced up to future events unsure what to do but determined to face his fate like a man.
Perhaps no man in
history has been more vociferously courted by the military, more cajoled
to act a particular way be his enemies, or more pushed in a direction he
didn't feel was right by his friends than Muhammad Ali. In late April when
he reported to the
Ali completed his
written tests and the physical and then lined up with the other inductees,
most far younger than his 27-years of age, as names were called out along
with branch assignments (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines). "Cassius
Clay--Army," the officer shouted. Clay remained in his place.
"Cassius Clay! Will you please step forward and be inducted into the
Armed Forces of the
was met not so much by an angry military as by a determined Army. The
matter was bigger than one man refusing to submit to the draft, if the
Selective Service failed to induct Muhammad Ali, World Champion boxer, it
would be greatly embarrassing. Earlier Ali had been offered "easy
outs" such as the opportunity to serve in the National Guard as a
"weekend warrior," and was repeatedly promised that as a member
of the military he'd never see combat in
On that day in
On that day when Muhammad Ali made the stand his personal convictions demanded, he knew the consequences and stood prepared to pay the price for his dissent. Two months later when his case went to trial, despite the angry mood of much of the country Ali stood by his convictions. It took the jury only 21 minutes of deliberation to find him guilty and the judge imposed the maximum sentence, $10,000 find and 5 years in Federal Prison.
Fortunately Ali never went to prison and remained free pending appeal of his case. It the meantime he lost everything: his title, his livelihood, his standing with many Americans and the respect of most men in his profession. It was a horrible price to pay for what one believed. An appeals court upheld his conviction and the case was referred to the Supreme Court.
By 1970 the American
public had also largely turned against the war in
In 1971 the U.S.
Supreme Court reversed Ali's conviction and on March 8 he returned to
During a career that spanned 21 years Muhammad Ali defeated almost every heavyweight boxer of his time, finishing with a record of 56 wins (37 by knockout) and 5 losses. He claimed the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship three-times, and was named "Fighter of the Year" by Ring Magazine more times than any other fighter. He is an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and is one of only three boxers to be named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated in history.
In 1973, the draft
ended and the
In 1982 Ali learned he
was suffering from Parkinson's Disease, a degenerative condition of the
central nervous system that attacks its victim's motor skills and speech.
With a clear mind and an obvious disability, he continues to fight back
with the same courage he demonstrated in the boxing ring and in a court
One of the greatest
athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali produced some of
commitment to equal justice and peace" the President spoke of did not
come easily…Muhammad Ali paid a great price from 1964 to 1972 but he can
stand proudly today to remind us that doing what one perceives as
"the right choice" has no value…it is priceless.
Enlistees had more options but served 3 or more years of active duty.
Men who volunteered for the draft could select their preferred branch
of service and were only required to serve 2 years on active duty.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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