As he looked at himself in the mirror behind the coffee-shop counter at the Hotel America in Houston early last Friday, on perhaps his final morning as heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali was wondering how history would reflect upon him. The idea that he is an historical figure, a leader of his people, a Muslim Davy Crockett, had become an obsession and a consolation to Ali as the time approached for him to refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States.
Three days earlier, at lunch in another hotel, he had said, "I've left the sports pages. I've gone onto the front pages. I want to know what is right, what'll look good in history. I'm being tested by Allah. I'm giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious belief. If I pass this test, I'll come out stronger than ever. I've got no jails, no power, no government, but 600 million Muslims are giving me strength. Will they make me the leader of a country? Will they give me gold? Will the Supreme Being knock down the jails with an earthquake, like He could if He want? Am I a fool to give up my wealth and my title and go lay in prison? Am I a fool to give up good steaks? Do you think I'm serious? If I am, then why can't I worship as I want to in America? All I want is justice. Will I have to get that from history?"
Now, as he poked a fork at four soft-boiled eggs and drank a tall glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee, Muhammad Ali—or Cassius M. Clay Jr., as it says on the legal documents that his lawyers carry into court in two cardboard boxes—was being moved by the clock toward his most fateful encounter since the night in 1964 when he knocked out Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. That one got him the heavyweight championship, and this one could lose it for him. "But not in the eyes of the people," he said. "The people know the only way I can lose my title is in the ring. My title goes where I go. But if they won't let me fight, it could cost me $10 million in earnings. Does that sound like I'm serious about my religion?"
"Come on, Champ, come on," said his New York attorney, Hayden Covington. "We've got 25 minutes."
May 8, 1967
"If we're one minute late, they're liable to shove you behind bars," his Houston attorney, Quinnan Hodges, said.
"All right, man, all right," said Ali. "If you want to go, let's go."
They went out onto the street and packed the entourage into two taxicabs for the ride to the Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station on the third floor of the U.S. Custom House at 701 San Jacinto Street in Houston. The morning was cool and gray, elephant-colored, with a touch of mist coming down. Earlier Ali had said he would walk to the induction center from the Hotel America, a distance of about a mile, or from his apartment in South Houston, six miles out into a Negro district. But "the champ don't feel up to it, anyhow," said Bundini Brown, Ali's sometime assistant trainer. The night before Ali and Brown had been up until nearly 2 a.m., talking. Ali was working off his vast energy.
"It was like the night before a fight," Bundini said. "The champ has got to talk and talk until he can fall asleep without tossing and turning."
Ali was still in the shower when Covington and Hodges went up to fetch him at 6:30 a.m. He dressed quickly, putting on a tailored blue suit, reassuring his lawyers he would not be late. "He was a lot cooler than we were," Hodges said.
At the induction center there was a crowd of reporters and photographers but only a few curious spectators standing on the steps and on the broad walk that led into the building. Ali got out of his cab shortly before 8 a.m. When the lights of the television cameras went on, Ali shoved Bundini away from him. Although he is largely in sympathy with the Muslims, Bundini is not a convert and they did not want his face appearing at the champion's shoulder. Ali pushed through the crowd, paused on the steps to smile for the cameras and entered an elevator in the lobby. There was such a crush of people that many of the 26 pre-induction examinees who were reporting that morning for Houston's Board No. 61 could not get on the elevator, causing the examination schedule to begin 15 minutes late. One of the PIEs, John McCulloch, 22, of Sam Houston State College, was forced back against the wall by the wake of the champion's following. Clutching his canvas overnight bag—an item Ali did not bother to bring, since he knew he would not be leaving on the 6 p.m. bus for Fort Polk, La.—McCulloch said, "I feel kind of sorry for the old guy. He can't get away from all this mess."
On the third floor Ali was taken down the hall past a barrier guarded by soldiers. After roll call he began his physical examination. A mental examination was not required, because the results of Ali's previous mental exam were available to the processing personnel. "It was great, the way he came in," said Ron Holland, a PIE transfer from Escondido, Calif. " 'You all look very dejected,' he told us. 'I'm gonna tell you some jokes.' He was very cheerful. He cheered us all up. He talked about Floyd Patterson. I asked him about that Russian who is supposed to be such a good boxer, and he said, 'We'll take care of him.' He told us his mind was made up. He said if he went into the Army and the Viet Cong didn't get him, some red-neck from Georgia would. He was in good spirits. I got his autograph. I've been in this examining center before, and this was the first time I've been treated so well. I think the Army was trying to impress the champ. He even told me to hang around and he'd see that I got out of the building all right in case there was a riot or something outside."
Ali had been preparing for weeks for the moment when he would refuse to take the symbolic one step forward that would put him into the service. He had decided at least two weeks earlier on his course of action.
The refusal to take that one step forward, Ali had been told, was the only way he could get his case judged in court in a civil suit. In any controversy with the government, a citizen must, in legal terms, "exhaust his administrative remedies" before he can be heard in a civil proceeding by a federal judge. Ali's request for a draft exemption on the grounds that he is a Muslim minister had been denied not in court but by the Selective Service Board of Kentucky, by National Selective Service System Director Lieut. General Lewis Hershey and by Judge Henry Gwiazda, Dr. Kenneth W. Clement and Commissioner Charles Collatos, members of the three-man National Selective Service Appeal Board. Until Ali actually showed up for induction and refused to take the one step forward that is, in effect, an oath, his administrative remedies were not exhausted—which explains why there had been so many appeals, requests and suits filed by Covington and Hodges.
Ali, under the guidance of Muslim Leader Elijah Muhammad and Elijah Muhammad's son, Herbert, hired Covington in August of last year. Covington, 56, is a distinguished attorney who wears rimless glasses, combs his white hair in a flowing sweep and gives the impression he should be hooking his thumbs into a pair of galluses in the Clarence Darrow manner when he leans over the rail of a jury box. A member of Jehovah's Witnesses, he has argued many of their cases, and on a single day in 1943 he got 13 decisions handed down in his favor by the U.S. Supreme Court. Covington is the son of a Texas Ranger. He grew up in Sulphur Springs, Texas on the Mexican border, went to law school in San Antonio and has practiced in Manhattan since 1939. A month ago he brought in prominent Houston Trial Lawyer Hodges, 45, as associate counsel. Ali calls them Big Boss and Little Boss. They both call him Champ.
"I'm a southern white Episcopalian from the University of Virginia and the University of Texas," Hodges says. "But it doesn't matter what I think of the Muslims. I'm a lawyer first, and I know the champ is not only a sincere Muslim minister but a nice person. The first time I talked to him, a cute white girl walked up and held out her hand to him. 'Oh, break it, break it,' she said. It embarrassed him and he walked off. Later I was talking to him and said something would 'enhance' our position. 'What's that word, lawyer?' he said. If he had an education, there'd be no limit to the man."
Ali returned to Houston from a trip to Chicago, Louisville and Washington, on the Monday night of his final week before reporting for induction. Covington and Hodges met him at the airport. He got into the back seat of a white convertible and asked to be driven to his apartment. "This won't blow my hair, will it?" he asked laughing. "Hey, lawyers, I been in jail. I went to a jail in Washington, just checking the place out, you know. They live nice in that jail. They got a gym, TV, good food. The prisoners heard I was there and the warden asked me to speak before they tore up the place. Then I went into the streets and spoke to thousands. I signed autographs for two and a half hours. I got thousands coming to the faith. What does it take to make me a minister? Why they want to put a man like me in the Army? If I have to die, I'll die. Most people die for nothing. I'll at least be dying for something."
Cruising along through the warm, blue Houston night, Ali directed the driver to stop at a bowling alley. "I'll show you what the people think of me," he said. Inside were a few whites and about 50 Negroes. Ali walked among them, kissing babies, shaking hands, always looking over his shoulders to see who was coming up next. Rather disappointed with his reception, he went back to the car and was driven to Texas Southern University, where roughly 100 Negro students had gathered on the sidewalk, not knowing they were to be visited. More than a week before, they had been throwing bottles and bricks through car windshields in a protest inspired by Stokely Carmichael. This evening Ali jumped out of his car, threw up his arms and shouted, "I'm ready to rumble."
"Hi, soul," somebody yelled.
"Hi, brother," shouted Ali.
The students gathered around him, while Hodges and Covington waited in the car.
"Burn their babies," a student said.
"Stokely, he tell the word to burn Whitey," said another.
"I'm telling you religion," Ali said.
"Naw, not religion. We want to burn Whitey."
"Don't do nothing violent. We're not violent," said the champion.
"This is rebellion, man. They take you in the Army, they see a rebellion."
"Stokely say burn their babies."
"We don't want violence," Ali said.
"You don't put down a black brother," said a little guy with a mustache.
"Are you married?" Ali asked a girl.
"Yeah, man. I'm married to SNCC," she answered.
After a few more minutes of listening to shouted slogans, Ali returned to the car. "They're a bunch of young fools," he said. "I don't want any of this violence. I hear there'll be demonstrations Friday morning in New York, Chicago, London, Egypt. There are 16,000 Muslims in Cleveland who'll demonstrate. Jim Brown's organization called me about that. Muslims are flying in from all over the country. Nearly every Negro is a Muslim at heart. The trouble is, first thing you got to do to be a Muslim is live a righteous life. Most people, white or black, don't want to do that."
Ali got out of the car at the Ardmore Apartments, where he rents a neat little two-bedroom air-conditioned white-brick cottage. He said good night to his attorneys and knocked on the door of his legal residence. Reggie Shabazz, who works for Ali, was staying there, but he was not in and Ali had no key. He took a cab and went to the Hotel America.
At noon the next day Ali went to lunch at the exclusive Houston Club with Hodges, Covington, U.S. Attorney Morton Susman, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Walker and a local Muslim minister, Raymond X (né Watlington). Susman, a Jew, and Walker, a Negro, were to take the government side in Ali's final pre-induction appeal, with two native white Texans defending Ali, an irony that was duly remarked upon. While the lawyers discussed ground rules, Ali launched into a typical speech about his religion.
"Blacks and whites are dying in Vietnam so those people over there will have the freedom to worship as they want," he said. "So how come I can't do it here?" He is not necessarily opposed to the war in Vietnam, merely to his own presence in the armed services.
Ignoring the stares from the luncheon crowd at the Houston Club, Ali finished his meal and went up one flight to the kitchen to shake hands with the help. "I want the baddest man in the house," he said. "Who wants to fight me?" Raymond X, a tiny, sharp-faced man with a thin mustache, smiled. "Oh, my, he's sweet," he said. "He comes out to preach at our mosque on Polk Street."
How many members did the local mosque have? "A hundred," said Raymond X. A hundred? "Well, almost," he said. "Of course, all of them don't always attend. They're like members of any church, I guess. Some of them attend just often enough to stay members."
Could whiles attend? "Oh, my, I don't have that authority. Permission would have to come from Chicago. I'd hate to go back to the ranks, you understand."
On the sidewalk again, Ali loped off in his swinging, bouncing stride, with little Raymond X trotting after him. The champion went to the airport and flew to Chicago to close up his suite at a motel, put his Cadillac into a garage and deposit some money in his bank. While in Chicago he discussed the house he wants to buy. It would have a Muhammad Ali museum in the basement and a movie screen to show his fights to his grandchildren. He talked about being a leader of his people, like a few of his heroes—Columbus, Jesus, Wyatt Earp and Davy Crockett, all of whom, he says, stood up for what they believed. He is not a Joe Louis fan. The former heavyweight champion has criticized Ali for not going into the Army as Louis did in a different time and a different war. "Louis is the one without courage," said Ali. "Louis, he doesn't know what the words mean. He's a sucker."
Ali returned to Houston and met with Covington and Hodges for lunch at the Rice Hotel on Thursday. Covington was talking about his big day in 1943 with the 13 favorable Supreme Court decisions. "Big Boss, this is '67, no longer are you in heaven," Ali said, laying his head against Covington's shoulder and snoring. "Oh," he said, "when this is over, all I want to do is fall down on the islands of Japan and listen to that native music."
They were on their way to the Federal District Court of Judge Allen Hannay. Covington and Hodges were seeking a restraining order to prevent the Selective Service boards of Kentucky and Texas, as well as General Hershey, from reporting Ali as delinquent until his request for an exemption could be ruled on in federal court as a civil matter. Under normal procedure, when Ali refused to take the one step forward, he was to be reported as delinquent, which could result in a criminal charge. Eventually he would be indicted and arrested. That was what Ali's attorneys wished to avoid.
Waiting for the 2 p.m. hearing, Ali chatted in the hall outside the courtroom with a score of fans. Wearing a blue suit, a Muslim tie clasp and wraparound sunglasses, he said he wanted to give Patterson another chance at the championship. "Liston, they'd say he's too old if I beat him again. The Cat [Cleveland Williams]? He's a nice fellow. My hardest fight was [Karl] Mildenberger. If you think it was easy to whip him, you're wrong. Next thing, I'll be fighting football and basketball players. Chamberlain? Ti-i-i-m-ber-r-r. I can whip all those folks. I turned down $500,000 to play the life of Jack Johnson because he wasn't the right type of person. I'd want to control my own scripts. I don't like movies. I like real-life drama. Like what's going on here today. This is history you're witnessing. Why, people are betting money on this just like a fight."
In the courtroom it began to look like a tight crowd. Promoter Harold Conrad came in from New York. Bundini Brown sat in the first row. Ali sat at a table, leaning back in a green leather swivel chair. After Covington had made his opening argument and Susman and Fred Drogula, a federal attorney from Washington, had responded, Ali was called to the stand. Generally, an attorney will spend hours preparing his client for testimony. The practice is called woodshedding. Ali was prepared in less than a minute. All Hodges told him was: "Tell the truth, and don't get belligerent if you are cross-examined."
Judge Hannay, who had the lined red face and brief smile of an old cowboy, an appearance he got by playing golf frequently at Houston's River Oaks Country Club, seemed very interested in having Ali in his witness box. In the hall Ali had told some Texas Southern students who spoke of protest, "I don't want you suffering just because I suffer. Don't get hurt. They're talking about filling the jails." To Judge Hannay, Ali was courteous, always saying, "sir." But his testimony made the judge blink.
Ali told how he had been approached by the Muslims in Miami in 1961 and had finally been sold on the religion shortly before the Liston fight in 1964. He said "Old McDonald" (Promoter Bill McDonald) had tried to make him renounce his religion but he had refused. He claimed that he had packed his bags and climbed aboard his bus to leave Miami Beach, even though he owed $64,000, before McDonald relented.
After that demonstration of his sincerity, Ali testified, he was given the Muslim name of Muhammad Ali—meaning "one who is worthy of praise"—which was recorded in the Muslims' Lamb's Book of Life. Ali then became a minister of his religion, one that is known as the Lost Found Nation of Islam in North America. Ali told the judge there were 75 Muslim mosques in the U.S. and said that he had spoken at 18 of them. Also, he said, he had spoken at a number of colleges. He said his job is as a Muslim minister, at which he spends 160 hours per month, and his sideline is being the heavyweight champion of the world. Unfortunately for Ali, none of that was at issue in court that day. Susman and Drogula kept repeating that Ali had not exhausted his administrative remedies yet, and Judge Hannay agreed.
But not before he heard Ali testify that "Jesus was a righteous prophet of Allah who came 2,000 years too soon. He didn't leave earth and go up to heaven on a cloud. He's no spook in the sky. His body is embalmed to last 10,000 years and is buried in the East. But of course. Judge, all Shriners, Masons and Muslims know about that."
Ali discussed his ex-wife and the money it cost him to divorce her when he realized she was not a devout Muslim. He said Columbia Records had broken a $100,000 contract because he insisted they use the name Muhammad Ali. He said he had been guaranteed $350,000 to fight in Tokyo and $1 million to fight in Lebanon. He said he is thick with Nasser and Faisal. About serving in the armed forces, he said: "It's against the teachings of the Holy Koran. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or by The Messenger [Elijah Muhammad]. Muhammad was a warrior 1,400 years ago but he was a holy warrior fighting in the name of Allah. We don't take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers. We aren't Christian or Communist."
Fascinated, the judge bent forward and asked, "In a conflict between Communism and Christianity, which side would you take?"
"Neither side, Judge," replied Ali.
After Bundini Brown had testified to Ali's sincerity, the champion's party loaded into an airport limousine, went to Hodges' office and then began a customary romp through the streets. At Foley's Department Store Ali ate a bowl of vegetable soup and bought a pecan cake and half a dozen oatmeal cookies. A little girl with long hair and a frilly dress, looking very much like the Alice who went to Wonderland, asked Ali for his autograph. "I see you wrestle," the girl said. "She must have seen the Terrell fight," said Ali.
Leaving Foley's, Ali looked up at a new 40-story office building. "See that? Well, that's about as high as a pyramid I saw. It would start way down there in that other block and go up to the top of that building in a perfect point. Now, how they do that?"
"They must have had a hammer and a saw," the reporter said.
Ali chuckled. "I know how," he said. "In Egypt I heard it from a wise old man whose granddaddy told him. It had to do with compression. They'd dig a hole, put a rock on top of it, pump the hole full of air, and whoosh! that stone shot right up to the top."
"With the help of 6,000 slaves," Bundini said.
"President Nasser and I saw that pyramid," said Ali, closing the discussion.
The next morning, while Ali was closed off in the examining room at the induction station, three or four whites who had come down from Long Island to work at an Indian reservation in Oklahoma were protesting out front with 11 Negroes, several dressed up in African suits made out of sheets and sandals. It was hardly the mass protest Ali had predicted.
The photographers and reporters, who outnumbered the protesters 10 to 1, immediately demonstrated one basic flaw in modern journalism. They photographed and interviewed all the protesters, thus giving weight to what was a very puny demonstration by—except for one cute girl—a very scraggly-looking bunch. There have been few demonstrations or protests of any sort in Houston—a fact the city is smugly proud of and one that could change suddenly and explosively this summer. "We integrated this city quietly, without any fuss, by agreement, and we have no trouble" is what one hears in Houston.
Weary of watching the protesters, Bundini Brown asked a white friend to go with him across the street to a place called the Brown Derby Lounge. Inside the Brown Derby, the friend asked the barmaid for two soft drinks. "Se√±or, we don't serve no colored people," said the barmaid in a Tex-Mex accent that Bundini could not comprehend.
Down the block at the Texas State Hotel, Bundini said, "You got awful peculiar laws in Texas. The white folks serve me here in this hotel, but that Mexican wouldn't. Well, I understand. I got no malice in my heart toward anybody. Neither does the champ. He's got the right medicine for the black man, you know. He loves people. He helps the little people. When he goes up to a wino, that man straightens up. If the champ walked on by, the wino would just get worse, thinking nobody loved him. The champ offers people respect. That's better than just offering love. Love can turn into hate. Respect turns into shame for not doing better or into pride if you do good.
"The champ wants to clean up the black man, to wipe out prostitution and dope addiction, to give the black man respect. So what difference does it make what the champ calls himself? If he wants to call himself Two and say he's a member of the Boop Boop tribe, that's his business. America is supposed to mean freedom, isn't it? What white people can't understand is that the hurtingest thing in the world is to be black and live in a ghetto. If you live in a ghetto, you prove you're a man by throwing bricks. If you're intelligent, they don't respect you for it. They think you're crazy. The champ is trying to teach respect. I'm not a Muslim, but sometimes I talk like one."
In front of the induction center five Negro students were burning their draft cards while a score of others, coming in at noon, marched in a circle carrying placards and a Black Power flag. They sang songs about black nationalism. They chanted, "Keep the faith." They read from the writings of Malcom X—"Whoever heard of a revolution where they lock arms and sing We Shall Overcome?" and, "America is a house on fire. Let it burn, let it burn." They shouted racist clichés: "blue-eyed devils," "send them to their graves," "Molotov cocktails," "Black Power," "Whitey's war."
Up on the steps stood G-men wearing red bands in their left lapels and carrying walkie-talkie radios. Morton Susman sat on the steps, his radio muffled in a cardboard folder, looking slightly embarrassed by the squawking. The protesters kept marching in a circle, waiting for Ali to come out, looking for a leader. Ali was inside, eating his box lunch, tossing aside the ham sandwich.
When the moment came, he refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. Navy Lieutenant C.P. Hartman called him into his office and warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Ali then returned to the big room and again refused to answer his name, whereupon he was asked to write, "I refuse to be inducted into the armed forces of the United States." He signed his name, making the refusal official. Susman was notified, though he was hardly surprised. The procedure is for Lieut. Colonel J.E. McKee, commanding officer of the induction station, to notify the Selective Service Board of Texas, which notifies the Kentucky board, which notifies Hershey, who refers the matter to the Justice Department, which hands it back to Susman, who goes before a federal grand jury to request an indictment. That process will require from 30 to 60 days, in Susman's estimate. The government obviously is not anxious to rush Ali off in manacles.
Covington and Hodges have filed further legal actions. Even if a federal court rules that Ali is not a minister of the Muslim faith—which, according to Covington, has been adjudged a religion and not a sect in several decisions—and he is found guilty of violating the Universal Military Training and Service Act, it could be two years or more before Ali enters prison. But he has been prejudged, as he knew he would be, by boxing authorities. "That's what really hurts," said Hodges. "In the law, a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. Muhammad Ali has not even been charged with a crime yet, and they're all leaping in to strip him of his title."
Ali had little to say about it except for a prepared statement. He was under orders from Elijah Muhammad to keep his mouth shut. He went back to the Hotel America and called Herbert Muhammad. Then he curled up on his bed and phoned his mother in Louisville. "Mama," he said, "I'm all right. I did what I had to do. I sure am looking forward to coming home to eat some of your cooking."