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I envy Muhammad Ali. He faces a possible five years in jail and he has been stripped of his heavyweight championship, but I still envy him. He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith.
I have known that for a long time, but he demonstrated it again last week when I talked to him in Cleveland. Jim Brown called me and asked me if I would join him and some other Negro athletes in a meeting with Ali to offer him whatever help we could with his problems. I was happy to go, because I have a very special feeling for Muhammad.
This was not supposed to be a public meeting. When the news leaked out, it was reported wrong, too. We never went to Cleveland to try to persuade Muhammad to join the Army. We went to offer him our help; if he had changed his mind and decided to go in the Army after all, we were ready to say that we had influenced him to do it and we were ready to accept our share of the criticism and insult he would be sure to get from some of the Negro community.
We were there to give him an out if he wanted one, but he never wavered for a moment. There were 10 of us at the meeting in a room at the Negro Industrial and Economic Union: Jim Brown, the Cleveland football player who is making movies now; Lew Alcindor, the All-America basketball player from UCLA; Curtis McClinton, Kansas City Chiefs fullback; Willie Davis, All-League defensive end from Green Bay; John Wooten, Cleveland Browns guard; Walter Beach, Browns defensive back; Bobby Mitchell, Washington Redskins flanker; Jim Shorter, Redskins defensive back; Sid Williams, Browns linebacker; and myself. Aside from being there to help Ali, we wanted to find out from him in his own words what was going on. It is distressing, but you can't tell from the papers and magazines anymore. It is a symptom of the growing return to McCarthyism in this country that the papers slant and distort the news until it is almost impossible to determine the truth.
Muhammad was in good spirits. It was an informal meeting. We just sat around and discussed his problems for about two or three hours, and we found out right away that he was not going to change his mind.
"I'm doing what I have to do," he said. "I appreciate you fellows wanting to help and your friendship. But I have had the best legal minds in the country working for me, and they have shown me all the options and alternatives I could use if I wanted to go in. Things like going in to be an ambulance driver, or a chaplain, or a truck driver. Or joining and saying I would not kill. I could do any of those things, or I can go to jail.
"Well, I know what I must do. My fate is in the hands of Allah, and Allah will take care of me. If I walk out of this room and get killed today, it will be Allah's doing and I will accept it. I'm not worried. In my first teachings I was told we would all be tested by Allah. This may be my test."
He talked to us politely and enthusiastically and honestly. We didn't try to change his mind. No one has the right to do that. After listening to him talk and getting the full impact of how he feels about his religion, I realized that I was certainly in no position to tell him what to do. He has achieved a faith that I never have, as much as I would like to. "I sleep well every night," he told us. "I'm not afraid. Once someone told me I should have a couple of bodyguards, when the feeling against me was so strong. But I walk the streets by myself and I don't need bodyguards. I'm in the hands of Allah."
So he must do what he believes to be right. I don't think he has been treated fairly or justly. The action taken by the boxing commissions is, I believe, a symbol of our times, of the doctrine of guilt by accusation. He has not been convicted of anything yet, but he has been deprived of his championship. There is nothing that says the heavyweight champion of the world must belong to a particular religion or not be a conscientious objector to war. Muhammad's right to be a Black Muslim—or a Catholic or a Protestant—is guaranteed by the Constitution. He may be acquitted when he comes to trial. No one knows what will happen. But because he is a Black Muslim and because he refuses to compromise his principles it will be difficult for him to get a fair trial. I'm not taking the position of trying to defend Ali, because he doesn't need my defense. I can't say that what he believes in is right or that it's wrong, but he certainly has the right to believe.
Maybe I can demonstrate what I mean. Say you sat down and wrote a biography of Muhammad Ali and told all about him. He doesn't smoke or drink or curse, and I've never known that he chased women, even when he was single. You could put down that he is the greatest heavyweight champion of all time and you wouldn't be wrong. Then you would put down that he is a devout Black Muslim, and all at once, from being a hero, he would become a villain. Then go back through the biography and change just two words. Every time you used "Black Muslim" change it to Catholic or Protestant or Baptist, and now he's a hero again.