Muhammad Ali was escorted from the armed forces examining station in Houston after refusing to be inducted into the Army on April 28, 1967.
I woke up Thursday morning and heard a familiar voice that I thought was part of a dream: Muhammad Ali was discussing why he had refused to be inducted into the Army.
This was no dream, but the commemoration of an unforgettable moment that was being replayed on the radio. The clip was taken from a June 20, 1967, interview after Ali was convicted of draft evasion. Two months earlier, at an Army induction center in Houston, Ali refused to step forward.
The radio show host, Joe Madison, who played the clip, said he was a high school senior in 1967 and that Aliís defiant action made a profound impact on his life.
As a high school junior and varsity athlete in Chicago, I had a similar reaction to Aliís act of resistance. We were engulfed in the Vietnam War in personal and often tragic ways. Two classmates of mine at Harlan High School ó one a great track athlete, the other an outstanding quarterback ó each lost their legs in combat.
Ali was one of the most identifiable human beings on the planet. Here was the Greatest, telling the world that he was not going to war. For me, words like conscience, principle and integrity were merely terms in a civics class. When Ali defended his controversial position, how he had no appetite for war, standing for oneís principle became concrete.
ďMy conscience wonít let me shoot my brother or some darker people,Ē he told reporters. ďAnd shoot them for what? They never called me nigger.Ē
That phrase triggered heated debates in our school and in our neighborhood, prompting us to ask each other hard questions.
Why do we continue to use the N-word?
Why should a black man, whose ancestors had been raped and beaten, deprived of human rights in the name of building a democracy, take up arms to fight an immoral war?
Aliís actions changed my standard of what constituted an athleteís greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?
Shortly after Aliís conviction for draft evasion, Jim Brown, the legendary Browns running back who had recently retired, called on some of the most influential black athletes of that era to meet with Ali in Cleveland. Bill Russell, Willie Davis, Bobby Mitchell and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) were among the athletes who met with, and grilled, Ali. Convinced that Ali was sincere, the athletes held a news conference the next day to express their support. Aliís actions inspired other athletes to step out of their traditional roles and speak out against injustice.
A year later, a pair of United States sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, staged their iconic demonstration on the victory stand during a medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
In 1969, Curt Flood, an All-Star center fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, took on Major League Baseballís reserve clause.
For those athletes who took courageous stands, there was a high price to be paid. Ali was banned from boxing for three years. Smith and Carlos were unable to find consistent employment for years. Carlosís wife committed suicide. Smithís first marriage ended in divorce. Flood will likely never be voted into the Hall of Fame.
Iím not sure that contemporary athletes are wired for making those kinds of sacrifices. Taking unpopular stands may jeopardize their earning potential or even their employment.
I have stopped using the word hero to describe greatness.
In an era of unimaginable intrusions into our private lives, the would-be hero walks on a rug that can be snatched away at a momentís notice. Better to talk about someoneís heroic moment or performing a heroic act.
Muhammad Ali is a great man. What he did 46 years ago was a heroic deed for the ages.
Each generation has its own method of protest and resistance. Listening to Ali on Thursday morning was a reminder that courage, honor and integrity are timeless.