In an era in which vilification of Islam and Muslims has become a popular activity for many, it was ironic and somewhat humorous to see nearly everyone in American celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali, who was undoubtedly the most famous American Muslim in U.S. history.
As most people know, it wasn’t always like that. When Ali refused to comply with a U.S. government draft order in 1964, he was vilified for being a draft dodger and, even worse, a communist sympathizer.
Keep in mind, after all, that 1964 was during the Cold War, when the official U.S. enemy was communism and communists, not Islam or Muslims. The communists were coming to getting us, the U.S. national-security establishment was constantly warning Americans. America was in grave danger of being conquered and taken over by the worldwide communist conspiracy, officials in the Pentagon and the CIA said. Communist Cuba, only 90 miles away from American shores, was a communist dagger pointed at America’s throat. And if the United States didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, the Asian dominoes would begin falling, they maintained, until America itself became Red.
In 1964, most Americans were buying into that frightening narrative. The national-security establishment, a type of totalitarian apparatus that had been grafted onto America’s federal governmental system at the end of World War II, was at that time the be-all and end-all of the American people. Characterized by a mindset of conformity and deference to authority that had been inculcated in them from the first grade, Americans placed deep and abiding trust in the national-security state, never challenging its judgment, especially when it came to matters relating to communism and national security. If the Pentagon and the CIA said that it was necessary for the United States to fight the communists in Vietnam, then that was just the way it was.
The essence of slavery
Then along came Muhammad Ali, who said, No. Refusing to follow an order to report to his draft board after he was reclassified 1A, Ali made critical remarks that went to the core of the national-security state’s narrative, the most famous of which was, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
The dangerous implication, of course, was that neither did America.
He didn’t stop there. He also began telling audiences, “Why should me and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles away from home, here in America, to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who’s never bothered us and I will say directly: No, I will not go.”
No American was supposed to talk like that and especially not a black man. While it was considered somewhat permissible to challenge the war on grounds of conscientious objection or for religious reasons, which Ali also did, no one was supposed to challenge the central thesis of the national-security establishment — that America did in fact have a quarrel with them Vietcong and that if America didn’t go fight them Vietcong, the Reds would ultimately be running the federal government.
Owing both to his refusal to obey the draft order and his public pronouncements against the Vietnam War, Ali was considered clearly a threat to national security and had to be put down. After all, if more Americans were to lose their unquestioning faith in the Pentagon and the CIA, that could mean that the ever-growing flood of tax monies flowing into what President Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex could be endangered.
The fact that Ali was black made him an even bigger threat to the national-security establishment and its war in Vietnam — much more serious than if he had been a white man. That’s because American blacks were the predominant form of cannon fodder that was being sent to Vietnam, because blacks generally lacked the resources to gain draft deferments that were being handed out to people who went to college and also because blacks lacked the political influence to join Reserve Units and National Guard units, which were being exempted from being sent to Vietnam. Imagine what could happen if American blacks starting listening to Ali and coming to the same conclusion — that they had no quarrel with them Vietcong.
Conscription and slavery
While the rest of America was vilifying and condemning Ali for his refusal to do his “patriotic” duty by complying with the draft, as Elvis Presley had “patriotically” done in the 1950s, there was one man who was steadfastly supporting Ali in his speeches — Martin Luther King.
As Hampton Dillinger points out in an excellent article in Salon entitled “When Muhammad Ali Took on America,” King was actually encouraging conscientious objection to serving in the military, telling audiences to “admire [Ali’s] courage. He is giving up fame. He is giving up millions of dollars to do what conscience tells him is right.” Considering King’s anti-draft, antiwar, and pro–civil-rights views expressed openly and publicly, it is certainly no wonder that the FBI and the national-security establishment considered him too to be a grave threat to national security and, therefore, spied on him, kept secret files on him, encouraged him to kill himself, and maybe even orchestrated his assassination, as the King family believe.
It is clear that Ali, King, and other American blacks were recognizing, even if subconsciously, that conscription was nothing more than a form of slavery.
Under conscription, the government orders a person to leave his regular life and report to a military installation to serve the government for some period of time. That is the very essence of slavery.
Let’s make this point starker with a series of hypotheticals. Suppose the state of Mississippi were to enact a law requiring all blacks to work on southern plantations from age 21 to age 65. Wouldn’t most of us consider that to be slavery?
Let’s assume though that the law required plantation owners to pay such workers double the minimum wage. Would that make a difference? Not to most people. Despite the pay, I think most of us would say that that’s still slavery and that blacks instead have the right to live their lives free of that type of law.
Suppose the law said that American blacks had to work on the plantation for a period of only two years, as a service to society. Would that change some people’s minds? It might for whites but my hunch is that most blacks would still see it as slavery. When people are forced to work for others, no matter the length of time, that is the essence of slavery.
Notice, however, that when the government conscripts blacks and everyone else to serve the Cold War-era, totalitarian apparatus known as the national-security establishment, many people’s perspectives change. At that point, they start waxing eloquent about “patriotism,” “national service,” the communist threat, the Muslim threat, the ISIS threat, or whoever else happens to be the official national-security state bugaboo of the day.
Daniel Webster certainly understood the evil, anti-freedom nature of conscription. In his excellent speech on conscription before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1814 (Google “Daniel Webster Speech on Conscription”), he stated,
Is this, Sir, consistent with the character of a free Government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libeled, foully libeled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Carta to be slaves. Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of Government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden, which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty? Who will show me any Constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender everything valuable in life, and even life itself, not when the safety of their country and its liberties may demand the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious and mischievous government may require it? Sir, I almost disdain to go to quotations and references to prove that such an abominable doctrine has no foundation in the Constitution of the country. It is enough to know that that instrument was intended as the basis of a free Government, and that the power contended for is incompatible with any notion of personal liberty. An attempt to maintain this doctrine upon the provisions of the Constitution is an exercise of perverse ingenuity to extract slavery from the substance of a free Government. It is an attempt to show, by proof and argument, that we ourselves are subjects of despotism, and that we have a right to chains and bondage, firmly secured to us and our children by the provisions of our Government. It has been the labor of other men, at other times, to mitigate and reform the powers of Government by construction; to support the rights of personal security by every species of favorable and benign interpretation, and thus to infuse a free spirit into Governments not friendly in their general structure and formation to public liberty.
There is another factor to consider: Unlike the case of Elvis Presley, who was drafted during a time of peace, Ali was being drafted not just to provide “service” to the military by, say, mowing lawns at some general’s house. He was being seized and taken away from his promising boxing career to go thousands of miles away to kill people who had never attacked the United States. As Ali put it in his succinct way:
Why should me and other so-called Negroes go 10,000 miles away from home, here in America, to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who’s never bothered us and I will say directly: No, I will not go…. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
In other words, the same government that had supported a denial of freedom for black men in America through segregation was seizing those same black men, conscripting them into serving the national-security establishment, forcing them to go thousands of miles away, and placing them in a position of killing people who had never done anything to American blacks or any other Americans, or else be killed by them — and justifying it all in the name of “defending our freedom.”
Ali clearly recognized the irony — indeed, the hypocrisy — of conscripting people to fight and die for freedom. When a free people are genuinely threatened by others, no one needs to force them to fight — most of them will do so voluntarily and willingly. It is only in wars like the Vietnam War where people’s freedom is not being threatened that the citizenry must be forced to fight.
Today there are many Americans who think that Ali’s refusal to obey the government’s order to serve the military is no longer relevant, given that the U.S. government has had a volunteer army for decades.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The pro-slavery mindset that undergirds a system of conscription is equally applicable under a system of conditional conscription — that is, one in which people can be drafted whenever the government deems it necessary and advisable.
The fact that the government still wields the authority to draft people is perfectly manifested in the fact that federal law requires every American male to register for the draft upon reaching the age of 18. Young American women might soon be subject to the same draft registration requirement.
What happens if someone refuses to register, just as Ali refused to comply with his draft order? He or she is prosecuted for a felony offense and is punished with incarceration for many years in a federal penitentiary. Don’t forget, after all, that the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in Ali’s favor not because it found the draft or the Vietnam War to be unconstitutional (which they clearly were) but because of Ali’s religious convictions as a Muslim.
Draft registration is just the first step in a military system that is based on conscription. Under a system in which the government wields the power to conscript people, the government remains in the superior, dominant position and the citizen remains in the subordinate, serf, or slave position, regardless of whether the draft registrants are actually being ordered to a military installation to serve the national-security establishment. The moment a citizen is required to register for the draft, either in peacetime or wartime, his position as serf or slave is established.
Muhammad Ali clearly understood that the draft, including draft registration, is just another form of slavery. Too bad Americans today, including many blacks and many young people, men and women alike, refuse to see that.