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A CASE OF CONSCIENCE
Jack Olsen
April 11, 1966
Call him Cassias Clay or Muhammad Ali, the Muslim name he prefers. He is the best-known athlete in the world. He is also the most hated, and an enigma even to those closest to him. In this first installment of a five-part series the writer probes beneath the bombast and doggerel that have characterized Clay's public life and reveals a hardheaded bigot who can be more unpleasant than his critics imagined. But underlying the demagoguery and deviltry is the conscience of a genuine objector. Conscience, in fact, is a theme that runs through Cassius Clay's life—his own, often misguided, and that of the society which spawned him
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April 11, 1966

A Case Of Conscience

Call him Cassias Clay or Muhammad Ali, the Muslim name he prefers. He is the best-known athlete in the world. He is also the most hated, and an enigma even to those closest to him. In this first installment of a five-part series the writer probes beneath the bombast and doggerel that have characterized Clay's public life and reveals a hardheaded bigot who can be more unpleasant than his critics imagined. But underlying the demagoguery and deviltry is the conscience of a genuine objector. Conscience, in fact, is a theme that runs through Cassius Clay's life—his own, often misguided, and that of the society which spawned him

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"Well, the people who made the biggest fuss about him arc the same ones who blew their tops when he became a Muslim. This made him antiwhite, and it inflamed their own prejudices. So they could scream about him, and what makes it nice is it's socially acceptable."

Whatever the underlying reasons, the bombilating Kentucky Negro had managed to rub the whole country the wrong way, and it had become necessary for the whole country to rise up in anger. As Clay's personal physician, the astute Ferdie Pacheco of Miami, explained: "Were getting back to the Korean war status, where the guy who goes into the Army is no longer a jerk but a man who's doing his duty and is to be applauded. Now comes Cassius saying he ain't got nothing against no Viet Congs. Had become out a year ago with that, many people might have said, 'Well, another Clay witticism.' Now he says it and he sounds like a traitor. And then he compounds the problem by saying it's a white man's war when there's a lot of colored people over there dying."

Said a Miami newspaperman who had studied and enjoyed Clay for six years: "Every time I begin to think that he really has the makings of a sweet person he does something like this, something so outrageous. Some of that stuff he's spouting is almost treason. Can you imagine what's gonna happen when he goes in the Army with some sergeant from south Georgia who's had about eight buddies killed in Vietnam?"

Even one of Clay's favorite people, his aunt, Mary Turner, a mathematics teacher in Louisville, spoke out. "He's gonna mess himself up so won't nobody go see him," Mrs. Turner said, with typical Clay-family bluntness. "Most folks feel like I do: when their sons get ready to go to the Army, they'll just pack the suitcases and go."

No one who was around Clay during those days when the draft board was getting ready to reclassify him believed that Cassius would "just pack the suitcases and go." Clay himself was the most surprised person in Miami when the draft board moved him into 1-A; right up to the moment of the announcement he had steadfastly believed that he and the Black Muslims and Leader Elijah Muhammad held some sort of power over the government. As Clay confided to a friend one morning, "They're trying to call me to the Army. Man, they know I ain't going in no Army! They ain't gonna bother me! There's too many people in the world watching me, see, and all of those black people overseas, they're Muslims, they're not Christians. And America's trying to make peace with 'em, and if they give me...."

His voice trailed off, and then he resumed his soliloquy in mocking, strident tones: "But Uncle Sam is a powerful man, and when Uncle Sam say 'Greeeeeeeeetings,' you go! Yeh, man!" His voice turned serious again. "Yeh, Elijah Muhammad's a powerful man. Whatever he say goes. Uncle Sam is in wars, wars everywhere, wars all over the country, everybody's at war today...."

Now he began an explanation of how he was sacrificing millions of dollars by being a Muslim, but how in the long run he could do more for the cause of the Negro by sticking to his adopted religion and letting the cash go. "All this stuff I turned down," he said, "and I'll show you where it make me bigger. Look how big I am. I got a call from Washington, the Pentagon called me. They said, 'We won't draft you. We've got to fake it because of the public. This has never happened before. We've never had to cope with no one like this before. This is a high office calling!" That's power. They know I'm not going."

He took a short telephone call, then went on: "I got invitations now. Haile Selassie want to see me in Ethiopia. That's a Moslem country. Ben Bella want to see me in Algeria. King Saud want to see me in Saudi Arabia. King Feisal want to sec me in Sudan. President Nasser of Egypt want to see me. These are men own their own countries. Powerful men, man! They own the land, they own millions of acres and control millions of people....

"The white want me hugging on a white woman, or endorsing some whiskey, or some skin bleach, lightening the skin when I'm promoting black as the best.... They want me advertising all this stuff that'd make me rich but hurt so many others. But by me sacrificing a little wealth I'm helping so many others. Little children can come by and meet the champ. Little kids in the alleys and slums of Florida and New York, they can come and see me where they never could walk up on Patterson and Liston. Can't see them niggers when they come to town! So the white man see the power in this. He see that I'm getting away with the Army backing offa me.... They see who's not flying the flag, not going in the Army; we get more respect...."

Clay picked up a few back issues of Muhammad Speaks, the house organ of the Black Muslim movement, and pointed out several vicious cartoons. One of them showed Uncle Sam whispering to the President: "Hurry! Sign all those niggers into war so they won't be left behind us!... Let our own sons stay behind in colleges and universities!... No, we know we can't win!" In his hand Uncle Sam holds a paper titled: BILLS TO GIVE NEGROES DEATH IN THIS WAR. A young Negro man stands to one side, thinking, "What shall I do or say?" and a tough-looking white man stands behind him saying, "G'wan, nigger, don't ask no questions!"

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