Saturday, May 14, 2016

An Example of Moral Courage: Muhammad Ali (1942–2016)

Moral courage is defined as "the courage to take action for moral reasons despite the risk of adverse consequences." In other words, moral courage is the courage that is required to do what one knows or believes is right when that choice involves personal risk, or when it will result in personal vilification or actual danger. 

Muhammad Ali in 1967

few years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I watched the 1977 movie "The Greatest" for the first time. Muhammad Ali plays himself in the movie. 

Muhammad Ali appeared in Houston Texas on April 28, 1967 for his induction into the Armed Forces. The movie depicts how he refused three times to step forward when his name was called. He was called out of the room and informed that he would be given another chance, warned he'd be committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000 if he didn't step forward, and promised he would not have to serve in a combat role. Muhammad Ali refused and he was arrested. That same day the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. He would not be able to obtain a license to fight in any state for over three years ... until the Jerry Quarry fight in Atlanta in October 1970. 

I thought Muhammad Ali did a pretty good job playing himself in the movie, though his acting ability has been criticized, probably by people who remember him well as the colorful figure he was on the 60's. I didn't grow up in a household where we watched boxing matches, or where politics or the Vietnam War were openly discussed. I don't remember any of this ... so I don't remember much about the man, or his heavyweight fights, his conversion to Islam, or his controversial refusal to fight an obscenely immoral war. That made the movie especially interesting to me. 

There's a short video (2m30s) on YouTube that I found very interesting, I don't remember ever seeing these video clips of Muhammad Ali ... his eloquence and his passion: 


Here's what he said at the time:
"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? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."
And, at the end of the YouTube video, this classic confrontation in which he schools a young white pro-war student:
"If I'm gonna die, I'll die right here, right now, fightin' you, if I'm gonna die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won't even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won't even stand up for my rights here at home."
That young man, certainly much better educated than Muhammad Ali, could not grasp the simple logic of Ali's argument ... that Ali could not support a government that would invent lies to send young American men to kill foreigners who had done nothing to him, who posed no threat to Americans, and who were fighting to defend their own right to self-determination. Not while there were Americans prepared to deny him his own rights to liberty and self-determination. Muhammad Ali was right to oppose the draft order. His conscience required it. 

Ali's choice was crystal clear; his resolve unswayable, his spirit indomitable. The Truth made it so. Morality made it so. 

I remember asking my own opposers, now nearly one decade ago, "Why can't you stand up for my rights as an America citizen?" They could not. Why not? 

It took a lot of courage to do what Muhammad Ali did. At the time, men were being assassinated for their public opposition to the Vietnam War. Ali will always rank high on my list of 100% American heroes.