Colin Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali

In 1966, Muhammad Ali refused to take part in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. He was barred from fighting for almost five years. Fifty years later, Colin Kaepernick took a kneel in exercise of his rights to free speech. It has been three years and he is still being punished.

Picture taking from Time.com. I do not own this picture…not even the ubiquitous postcard of it.

The picture to the left, that one in which Muhammad Ali triumphantly glares at an opponent, Sonny Liston, who he has just knocked out cold, is the one image of Ali that most of America (probably most of the world) is familiar with. Unfortunately, with the watering down of history an popular culture knowledge, it is the only image that many young Americans — Black, white, or otherwise — know of this world class athlete and champion of civil/human rights, and devoted father.

But who remembers that famous line…that famous line heard around the world… the one that made Ali a pariah, according to white America? In order to refresh our collective memories and to introduce for some, allow me to post this clip. Listen carefully.

Yes, he said it. In America, one is allowed to be a conscientious objector and refuse to enter a war, even during the periods of drafts. The right to object to military service was encoded from the very founding of the United States of America. According to the Department of Defense, a conscientious objection is: “A belief in an external power or being or deeply held moral or ethical belief, to which all else is subordinate or upon which all else is ultimately dependent and which has the power or force to affect moral well-being. The external power or being need not be one that has found expression in either religious or societal traditions. However, it should sincerely occupy a place of equal or greater value in the life of the possessor.” Now, Muhammad Ali, less than five years earlier (around 1964), shocked much of America by announcing that he’d converted to Islam and had changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He weathered the backlash from Black and white America, stood his ground and forced people to address him by his Islamic name. Was there any doubt of his sincerity? Furthermore, the clause state that one’s god need not find expression in dominant society, but that one must have a higher authority and let that higher authority have sovereignty over one’s life. “Allah” is still a strange word to many in American society and Islam is not America’s dominant religion, but Allah is real to the millions of followers of Islam here, and according to the teachings of the Holy Qu’ran, Muslims are not allowed to take part in any wars on behalf of Christians and those that are not sanctioned by Allah or Allah’s Messenger. Ali quoted this repeatedly.

Ali’s claim to conscientious objector status was denied, he was systematically denied a boxing license in all states, was stripped of his belt, and essentially banned from the sport — for exercising a right that all Americans are supposedly guaranteed by our Constitution. He would not fight from the ages of 25 to 29 — when most boxers are at the height of physical prowess. Banned from the ring, Ali fought his case with as much fervor in the courts as he had fought physical opponents in the ring. His case made it all the way to the Supreme Court where justice was finally served.

Well, here we are again, Black America. Though I am not a child of the 1950s or 1960s, though I did not personally live through Ali’s lengthy court battle, though I have only read about it in books and seen it in documentaries, I have the STRANGEST case of de ja vu and so should you.

Picture taken from Vox.com

In 2016, fifty years after Ali famously refused military service, another Black athlete took a stand for his political rights. A Black football player, Colin Kaepernick, for the San Francisco 49ers was seen kneeling during the Star Spangled Banner. Don’t make me repeat the story: we know it. Kaepernick stated that he was kneeling to protest the killing of innocent Black males by the police (and there have been several horrendous homicides committed against innocent Black men and boys by the cops), but the Conservative media labeled it as “disrespect for the flag” (oddly enough, our military, who fight and die for the flag, were fine with Kaepernick kneeling). When President Trump called this man a “son-of-a-bitch,” the racist-tinged backlash against Kaepernick was both sanctioned and amplified. And as always, some prominent Black folk jumped right on the Conservative bandwagon. They have such stupid advice that adds to the straw man, fake outrage surrounding Kaepernick: he should cut his hair, stand for the flag…etc.

At this point, whether we agree or disagree with Kaepernick is not the thing here. Exactly fifty years, almost to the date, after Muhammad Ali refused to report to the United States Air Force for military duty, Kaepernick kneeled for a political cause. As Kaepernick is not involved in a draft, he’s not claiming conscientious objector. Here’s the thing to be concerned about: Kaepernick, as an American citizen, does have the right to free speech guaranteed to all since the country’s founding. And just like Ali, Kaepernick is being punished collectively by the NFL for exercising his right as a Black athlete. I don’t care what these owners say, Kaepernick has been systematically barred from the NFL, simply because he dared to exercise his right to free speech as an African American. Would we really be having his conversation if Kaepernick were a white man protesting abortion (another right guaranteed to American citizens)? The answer is “no.” I know you. Reader, you know it.

Perhaps the message to Black Americans via world-class athletes like Ali and now Kaepernick, is that the rights guaranteed to other, melanin-deficient Americans, are not for Black Americans. It was never about “disrespecting the flag” as the conservative spin labeled it. It has been and still is about the tenacity of a Black athletic fighter to fight in another way: using the American Constitution and court system.

And I know that this is what the thing is. That “tryout” for Kaepernick was a planned farce that resembled a bunch of plantation owners who were trying desperately to outwit a slave…Only this “slave” (I am not using this word in a derogatory sense, but in order to demonstrate the view of the rich, white men who own and run the National Football League) is literate, well-versed in the Constitution, and willing to fight them with all his might.

After two or three years went by, public sentiment began to turn against the war and in support of Ali. I should hope that soon, Americans, especially Black Americans, began to understand what’s at stake here: the ability of employers to curtail our right to free speech simply because they sign our pay checks. I should hope that we on the “woke” side, should sway public opinion AGAINST the owners and toward Kaepernick, and that he be allowed at last, to have his career and his guaranteed rights.

As a professor, 50% of my job is writing and publication. What would happen to me if my chair HATES my cultural analysis of reality television shows? Would I be systematically black-listed and barred from all of the institutions of higher learning in America?

Now, if you like this, clapback (press the hands on the left hand side at the top). If you hate it, feel free to leave me an angry comment. This does not come from any class, but straight from my writer’s diary.

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LaToya R Jefferson-James

LaToya Jefferson-James has a Ph.D. in literature. Welcome! The professor is in! Come in and stay a spell. Let’s discuss and learn from one another.