ACLU Honors Muhammad Ali, a 'Heavyweight' Champion of Civil Liberties

June 12, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–Recognizing his lifelong commitment to the ideals expressed in the Bill of Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union is tonight honoring the man known around the world simply as “The Greatest” at the organization’s first-ever membership meeting.

Muhammad Ali is the first recipient of the ACLU Muhammad Ali Champion of Liberty Award for Heavyweights in the Arts, Business, Science and Sports, established in his name to recognize the contributions to civil liberties made by leading Americans from all walks of life.

“Forty years after his first big triumph — a gold medal victory at the 1960 Olympics in Rome — Muhammad Ali remains a magical figure, known and loved around the globe,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero.

“This award honors Muhammad Ali for what may have been the toughest fight of his career — being stripped of his World Heavyweight title and prosecuted for draft evasion in 1967 after refusing on religious grounds to fight in the Vietnam War.”

After a five-year battle for religious freedom that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the Justices reversed the conviction in 1971, finding Ali’s conscientious objector claim to have been “religiously based and sincerely held.” Romero noted that the ACLU’s founder, Roger N. Baldwin, served a year in prison as a conscientious objector in World War I.

Ali has been a leader in every great social movement of his time. His early embrace of the Nation of Islam and his insistence on rejecting his “slave name,” Cassius Clay, heralded a new era in black pride. His refusal to be inducted into the army anticipated the growing antiwar movement of the 1960s, and his travels to Africa and Asia for championship bouts reflected his early awareness of the developing world.

Joining the ACLU in presenting the honors tonight will be actor Dennis Haysbert, who plays President David Palmer on the FOX hit television series “24,”comedian David Chappelle of Comedy Central’s “Chappelle’s Show,” and Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Southern Regional Office, whose attorneys helped defend Ali.

“Ali was not the only young man of draft age who opposed the war, but as heavyweight champion of the world he was the most visible and controversial,” McDonald said. “Ali has moved far beyond the controversy over the war and the draft, and one of the reasons is because of the immense price he paid for his principles and his conscience.”

The ACLU attorneys who defended Ali — including Chuck Morgan, Marvin Karpatkin and Eleanor Holmes Norton — “did what ACLU lawyers have always done and continue to do: root out racial discrimination in our public institutions, defend the right of conscience and personal belief, and fight against governmental intrusion into the protected sphere of privacy,” McDonald said.

In a chilling reminder of today’s battles against intrusive government surveillance, McDonald noted that the government disclosed during the case that it had wiretapped five telephone conversations in which Ali had participated. Three of the taps had been on the telephone of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. One had been on the telephone of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As for the fifth tap, a lower court ruled that it was lawful since it had been authorized by the attorney general “for the purposes of obtaining foreign intelligence information” and need not be disclosed.

The Supreme Court ruling vindicated Ali’s draft refusal on religious grounds but never addressed other arguments his lawyers raised about the illegal wiretaps and the racial composition of the all-white draft boards, McDonald said.

The custom-designed crystal award, created by artist Jean Gardner, has a square base to symbolize the boxing ring, topped by a globe, which symbolizes Ali’s world championship status as well as the world-class achievements of future recipients.

For more information on the ACLU membership conference, go to

For more information on Muhammad Ali, visit

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