Imrem: Conflict lingers with Ali's past

  • In this April 28, 1967 file photo, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is escorted from the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston by Lt. Col. J. Edwin McKee, commandant of the station, after Ali refused Army induction.

    In this April 28, 1967 file photo, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is escorted from the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station in Houston by Lt. Col. J. Edwin McKee, commandant of the station, after Ali refused Army induction. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 6/4/2016 6:50 PM

The 1960s in America … you had to be there.

JFK, MLK and RFK were assassinated. Race riots set neighborhoods on fire. Vietnam was an open wound.

 

And then there was Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali and defying the military draft.

Many who considered Ali unpatriotic back then still hadn't reconciled with him by the time he died Friday at age 74.

A half-century later, I'm still conflicted over Ali's decision not to serve in the Army.

I don't doubt his religious convictions but that doesn't resolve the issue banging around in the recesses of my mind.

Admire the man? Deplore the man? Both of the above?

Not too many years ago, I stopped by the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont to watch Ali sign autographs.

The former three-time heavyweight boxing champion suffered from Parkinson's disease and this was billed as his last card show.

It was the first time I started pondering how I'd feel when Muhammad Ali died.

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I'm still not sure.

Ali might have been the most compelling American, here and abroad, during the last half of the 20th century.

What a great boxer and overall athlete Ali was. What a great entertainer and self-promoter. What a great social activist.

Growing into adulthood during those stormy '60s, I was smitten by anything anti-establishment and nobody was more anti-establishment than the man who became Muhammad Ali.

Like Ali and so many other young adults at the time, I hated war and didn't want to be ordered into one.

"The Vietnam War was going on and I was in college," is the way Cubs manager Joe Maddon put it just last week. "At the time, you really thought you were fortunate to not have to do that."

Young men sought draft exemptions, one being conscientious objector.

Muhammad Ali had converted to Islam and, based on his religion, declined military service.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In a polarized nation, nobody was more polarizing than Ali. He not only refused to take the oath but made inflammatory remarks about race in America.

"I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," Ali famously was quoted as saying. "No Viet Cong ever called me (the N word)."

Ali paid dearly for conscientiously objecting, including being barred from boxing for more than three years during the prime of his career.

Yet something still nags over the Ali-Nam episode even for those who accept the twin premises that he followed his principles and that war was stupid.

As high as the price Ali paid was, the price others paid was higher: More than 58,000 American men and women died in Vietnam and many of them didn't have any quarrel with the Viet Cong either.

When Ali didn't go, it was easy to wonder why our relatives, friends and classmates had to.

Ali objected to the war? Myriad draftees did and none wanted to be killed light years away from home in Southeast Asia.

Strange as it sounds, many applaud Ali for defying the government but resent that he "dodged the draft" when they couldn't.

Contradictions are everywhere: Like, Ali beat up people for a living but conscientiously objected to serving in combat?

To be honest with you and myself, I still don't know for sure how I feel about that chapter of Muhammad Ali's life.

The '60s are history but some conflicts persist.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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