Taking a stand in history: the case of Rosa Parks



For all the negative attention that the United States has attracted in recent times, it is one of the most celebrated concerning political, social and economic achievements. It is identified with – to name but just a few – an array of freedoms (such as of speech, of worship, among others), rights (such as human rights and the right to own guns, among others), social equality (such as racial equality) and economic prosperity (Billings and Roberts 1-8). However, it was not always like this. Many of the achievements can be attributed to specific individuals and/or groups of people who took stands for what they believed in as the ideal feature(s) of society. These had to do with various issues: freedom, racism, war, religion, and much more. Despite the controversy and the unpopularity of these efforts, they still have big impacts that reverberate over a bigger context (being time and space), but also often at a great cost to the individuals (or groups of individuals) involved. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to draft for the Vietnam War, for instance, had far-reaching impact beyond the individual that he was: His victory in court vindicated his stance, but it still came at a great personal cost to him.

Research Questions

This paper seeks to answer key questions regarding Muhammad Ali as an individual, but also as part of an oppressed group:

  1. What were the reasons for Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War?
  2. Why was Muhammad Ali’s stand unpopular with the government?

What personal price did Ali pay for his stand?

  1. What far-reaching impacts did his refusal have?


This paper utilizes literature review as the main research methodology. Varvana Myllarniemi refers to this as the methodology that “uses other studies as its data” (4). It is, therefore, a secondary study. In this case, this methodology is appropriate. This is because the study focuses on a historical issue, one that the research cannot examine in real-time. However, it involves the identification of data sources to use, but also importantly, the analysis and synthesis of such data. In other words, the researcher looks to make new findings that are relevant to the topic of study. In this case, the goal is to examine how empirical evidence supports the theory. Particularly, in this case, the goal is to see how Muhammad Ali’s case supports the theory that taking a stand is time unpopular and comes at a great cost to those involved.


The findings here directly focus on providing answers to the research questions listed above:

Muhammad Ali’s Reasons for Refusing to be drafted for the Vietnam War

Ali was recruited for the Vietnam War in 1966 – although it is important to note that there was some controversy over his mental examination for military enlisting – but Ali refused to heed the call. He argued that being a Muslim, he would be a “conscientious objector” (Calamur 1). In this regard, he argued that his faith only did not allow him to fight in a war unless it was a religious war. On top of that, he argued: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong” (Hauser 2). He referred to the Vietnamese as his brothers, people who had not called him nigger, lynched him, put dogs on him, rob him of his nationality, or rape and kill his mother and father.There is a popular story of how Ali threw away his Olympic Gold Medal (which he had won in Italy) after a waitress refused to serve him in a restaurant back in Louisville. The incident arguably marked for him a pivotal realization of his purpose in life, when he vowed to work on behalf of his black community against racism(PendergastandPendergast 87). His talk of lynching and being robbed of nationality, among others, was an overt reference to the racial discrimination that Ali and all the entire population of African-Americans had and still suffered in the country. He was saying that he would not fight for a country that did not recognize him and treat him fully as a citizen. Despite pressure from all sides and warnings that he would face five years in prison and be fined $10,000, Ali refused to budge. In fact, he invited the US government to “Just take [him] to jail” (Calamur 1).

The Unpopularity of Ali’s Stand

The Vietnam War would ultimately become increasingly unpopular in the US. However, in 1966, the war was still relatively young and therefore popular in the United States. As such, to see a black man eloquently refuse to serve incensed the US government and the political establishments as well as the sporting and media industries. Instantly, Ali found himself at the center of a national hatred. His decision was not only unpopular with white people but also with a number of his fellow blacks, who felt that Ali was killing the morale of many other blacks who had joined the war. This may be the irony: that the very people Ali thought he was taking a stand for were also part of the group deriding him for the decision he had made. Still, he stood firmly by his decision.

The Personal Price Ali Paid for His Stand

Inevitably, Ali would pay a big personal price for his decision. The New York Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association not only suspended his boxing license but also sought to strip him of his title. In1967, he was also convicted of violating the Selective Service Act, and Judge Joe E. Ingraham, of the Federal District Court, sentenced him to five years prison time (the maximum) and fined him $10,000(Calamur 1; Ezra 52; Quintana 186). Some, however, state that Ali almost millions of dollars in the process (Ezra52). Ezra (52-56)examines (as a case study) Main Bout, Inc., a corporation whose formation Ali announced in January 1966. Main Bout was to manage the promotional rights to Ali’s fights (valued in the multi-millions). To Ali, the company would play a significant role in giving the black the communities an economic power. In this regard, although the company was integrated, it was mainly run by the Nation of Islam, an all-black institution. This apparently did not go well with competitors (mainly led by the white people), and who from the start staged a major resistance, helped by White sportswriters. By February 1966, Ali had been drafted, and with the tribulations that surrounded it, these competitors took advantage to run Main Bout down. A series of unrewarding fights slowly ended Main Bout.

The Impacts of Ali’s Stand

The impact of Ali’s stand can be understood in the immediate context (that is, about three years) that surrounded his decision, including the two trials. It can also be understood by its long-term impact, that is, over the years since. On this is clear. Despite its initial unpopularity, Ali’s decision had far-reaching impact, beyond the personality. In the immediate context, it divided the country between those who agreed with him and those who did not. The first important landmark was the reversal of his conviction upon appeal at the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that Ali’s religious beliefs were a justification enough for his refusal to take part in the Vietnam War (Calamur 1). Still, he was ready to go to jail for his stand, and many would agree that he was only lucky for the Court to rule in his favor. Ultimately, though, Hauser (2) notes, Ali became a symbol beyond the war, not only for the black and/or those who were opposed to the Vietnam War, but also all those who had grievances against the so-called ‘the system’. His influence transcended the boxing ring and sports in general to have greater political influence. In Obama’s eulogy of Ali he said of his 1967 Supreme Court victory: “His victory helped us to get used to the America we recognize today” (Calamur 1).


Ali’s case confirms the thesis statement that taking a stand is often unpopular; it comes at a great cost to the individuals/individuals involved; and ultimately has a far-reaching impact. Ali refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War at a time when the war was still popular in the US. As such, he took great risk making the decision he made and he paid a great price for it (Calamur 1; Ezra 52; Quintana 186). These things put Ali in the company of many individuals who also made unpopular decisions on various issues. There were: Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat for a white passenger; Abraham Lincoln for the emancipation; Martin Luther King Jr. for nonviolent civil rights movement, among many others. These individuals made unpopular decisions for which they paid dearly, with many losing their lives. Over time, however, these unpopular decisions tend to get popular. This is especially because of far-reaching impacts that such stands have in the long run. Rosa Parks’ decision, for instance, has outlived her in many ways. It is said to have set in motion events that brought King into the public realm. The incident and the others that followed are said to have helped inspire King’s belief in nonviolence as a major tool for civil movement.


History is full of individuals and groups of individuals who stood strong for their beliefs – and it is important to point out that many of those beliefs (as history has proven) were not necessarily ‘right’ or ‘moral’ (Hitler would be a good case example). Some of the individuals have turned out to be more popular (even in death) than they were in the years that they took their stands for whatever reasons/beliefs. What history shows is that opinions change over time: what was popular may in the end become unpopular (such as Hitler and his ideologies), and what is unpopular may become popular (such as Lincoln’s Emancipation Act). For Ali, he has become increasingly popular. Part of that has to do with the failure of the Vietnam War, of course, but it does not take away what Mohamed Ali’s decision has come to mean for the US over time.

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  1. Billings, Laura and Roberts, Terry. A Discussion Guide to First Freedoms: A Documentary History of First Amendment Rights in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Web. 05 November 2017.
  2. Calamur, Krishnadev. Muhammad Ali and Vietnam, The Atlantic, June 04, 2016. Web. 05 November 2017.
  3. Ezra, Michael. Muhammad Ali’s Main Bout: African American Economic Power and the World Heavyweight Title. In M. Ezra (Ed.), The Economic Civil Rights Movement: African Americans and the Struggle for Economic Power. UK: Routledge, 2013.
  4. Hauser, Thomas. The Importance of Muhammad Ali, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2015. Web. 05 November 2017.
  5. Myllarniemi, Varvana. Literature Review as a Research Method.Aalto University: School of Science, 05 October, 2015. Web. 05 November 2017.
  6. Pendergast, Sara, and Pendergast, Tom. Contemporary Black Biography, Detroit, Michigan: Thomson Gale, 2007.
  7. Quintana, Andres F. “Muhammad Ali: The Greatest in Court.” Marquette Sports Law Review, 18.1 (2007): 171-204. Web. 05 November 2017.
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