Ali and MLK, not always allies, shared opposition to Vietnam War: ‘It cost them both dearly’

Ali and MLK, not always allies, shared opposition to Vietnam War: ‘It cost them both dearly’

Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. speak to reporters on March 29, 1967. | AP file

Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. were honored Monday at the Chicago History Museum. Illinois’ new Jan. 17 Ali commemorative day fell on the same day as the federal King holiday.

Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t agree on a lot of things, but both paid heavy prices for their loud opposition to the Vietnam War.

Ali, then the reigning heavyweight boxing champion, refused induction into the Army in 1967, saying he was “exempt as a minister of the religion of Islam.” King spoke about his own opposition to the war after Ali became a conscientious objector.

Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam put him at odds with the Baptist minister. But they did have a personal connection. King, for instance, sent Ali a note to be safe during one of his earliest fights, said Donald Lassere, president of the Chicago History Museum in Lincoln Park.

Donald Lassere Provided.
Donald Lassere.

“While they really didn’t see eye to eye on most things, they did see eye to eye on the Vietnam War, and it cost them both dearly,” Lassere said Monday at the museum during a ceremony honoring both men.

“Both Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King said this in different ways, but [they said], ‘Why is the United States going thousands and thousands of miles to kill young brown babies?’”

Ali lost his boxing license and his title. King became widely hated for his anti-war stance. And the FBI spied on them both for challenging the establishment, Lassere said.

Lassere noted that most Americans supported the war when Ali became a conscientious objector, and many opposed the war in 1971 when the Supreme Court reversed his conviction for violating draft laws.

Lassere joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, Ali’s eldest daughter Maryum Ali and others in a panel discussion to honor Ali and King. Last summer, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring Jan. 17 as a commemorative day for Ali in Illinois. The federal King holiday falls on the third Monday of January.

During the virtual event Monday, Jackson focused his remarks on Ali.

“Ali paid the price of a great champion,” Jackson said, calling him a “principled man.”

Jackson recalled the day in 1996 when Ali, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic cauldron to open the summer games in Atlanta and “touched our hearts.” After lighting the cauldron, Ali told the Washington Post that “God gave me this physical impairment to remind me that I am not the greatest. He is.”

American swimmer Janet Evans passes the Olympic flame to Muhammad Ali during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in Atlanta on July 19, 1996. AP
American swimmer Janet Evans passes the Olympic flame to Muhammad Ali during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in Atlanta on July 19, 1996.

Lassere, the former president of the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, said it was remarkable that Ali and King were both only in their 20s when they became international figures in the civil rights movement. King was 39 when he was shot to death by an assassin in Memphis in 1968. Ali was 74 when he died in 2016.

Ali’s daughter Maryum said her father would have wanted more people to vote in local elections and to “teach yourself the history not taught in schools,” including one’s family history.

Greg Kelley, president of the SEIU Healthcare union in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas, focused on King’s famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” sermon he gave the day before he died, which, Kelley said, “set the path for organized labor.”

Stratton reflected on King’s statement that “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”

“It’s not just people in elected office who are going to create the change,” she said. “It really comes down to people recognizing I may not be elected and I may never run for office, but there’s something I can do.”

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