Muhammad Ali died last night. The greatest 20th-century fighter, an athlete in a sport that most directly celebrates our lust for war, was a year and change younger than my dad, who volunteered to run heavy equipment in the Army in France before Vietnam got hot and before Ali refused to be drafted in 1967.
New York Times reporter Bob Lipsyte calls Ali “an amazing window on a historical period” of American history, the social awakening and upheaval surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.
In his new book (full review coming later this month), former Senator Larry Pressler calls Vietnam his generation’s big problem, an event that “created a fracture in the American psyche that has never healed.”
Rep. Jacqueline Sly reopens that window and exploits that fracture to take votes from her District 33 primary opponent, Senator Phil Jensen, who apparently filed for conscientious objector status in 1972. Senator Jensen says he “was hoping to serve in a hospital setting… because I was employed at a local hospital.”
Let’s compare Jensen’s reason for preferring not to go to war with Ali’s:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? I gotta go shoot them, them poor little black people and little babies and children and women? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail [Muhammad Ali, interview].
So said Muhammad Ali, who threw his fists and knocked men down for—for what? money? fame? pride?—but who would not shoot and kill for empire. Ali argued less politically to the court that as a Muslim, he could not fight in an infidel war. The Supreme Court in 1971 said Ali’s religious reason for rejecting the draft was good enough for them. Is Jensen’s reason (Jensen, who fears and hates Ali’s chosen religion) good enough for us, forty years after the Ali era, as we lay Ali to rest?