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Clay v. United States

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Clay v. United States
Argued April 19, 1971
Decided June 28, 1971
Full case nameCassius Marsellus Clay, Jr. [sic] also known as Muhammad Ali v. United States
Citations403 U.S. 698 (more)
91 S. Ct. 2068; 29 L. Ed. 2d 810
Case history
PriorConviction affirmed, 397 F.2d 901 (5th Cir. 1968); remanded sub. nom., Giordano v. United States, 394 U.S. 310 (1969); conviction affirmed again, 430 F.2d 165 (5th Cir. 1970).
Since the Appeal Board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, and it is impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department's letter that board relied, petitioner's conviction must be reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · William O. Douglas
John M. Harlan II · William J. Brennan Jr.
Potter Stewart · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Case opinions
Per curiam
ConcurrenceHarlan (in result)
Marshall took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), was Muhammad Ali's[1] appeal of his conviction in 1967 for refusing to report for induction into the United States military forces during the Vietnam War. His local draft board had rejected his application for conscientious objector classification. In a unanimous 8–0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall recused himself due to his previous involvement in the case as a U.S. Department of Justice official), the United States Supreme Court reversed the conviction that had been upheld by the Fifth Circuit.

The Supreme Court found the government had failed to properly specify why Ali's application had been denied, thereby requiring the conviction to be overturned: "the court said the record shows that [Ali's] beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them."[2][3][4]


In 1964, Ali failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were sub-standard. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, the test standards were lowered in November 1965[5] and Ali was reclassified as 1-A in February 1966,[6][7] which meant he was now eligible for the draft and induction into the U.S. Army. When notified of this status, he declared that he would refuse to serve in the U.S. Army and publicly considered himself a conscientious objector. Ali stated that "War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. I'm not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger." He also said "We are not to be the aggressor but we will defend ourselves if attacked." Ali also famously said in 1966: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." and "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"[8][9][10]

Ali appealed his local (Louisville, Kentucky) draft board's rejection of his application for conscientious objector classification.[11] The Justice Department, in response to the State Appeal Board's referral for an advisory recommendation, concluded, contrary to a hearing officer's recommendation, that Ali's claim should be denied, and that Ali did not meet any of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status. The Appeal Board then denied Ali's claim, but without stating its reasons.

External videos
video icon Conversation with Muhammad Ali, includes transcript, July 7, 1968, 28:55, American Archive of Public Broadcasting[12]

In early 1967, Ali changed his legal residence to Houston, Texas,[13][14] where his appeal to be reclassified as a Muslim minister was denied 4–0 on February 20.[15] He appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces in Houston on April 28. As expected, he refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title.[16][17] Other boxing commissions followed suit. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on May 8[18] and convicted in Houston on June 20 of the criminal offence of violating the Selective Service laws by refusing to be drafted.[19][20] The trial jury was composed of six men and six women, all of whom were white.[21] The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and denied an appeal on May 6, 1968.[22][23]

In the U.S. Supreme Court, the government conceded the invalidity of two of the grounds for denial of Ali's claim given in its letter to the appeal board, but argued that there was factual support for the third ground.

Opinion of the Court[edit]

The Supreme Court decision was handed down on June 28, 1971. The Supreme Court held that, since the appeal board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to petitioner, and it was impossible to determine on which of the three grounds offered in the Justice Department's letter that board relied, Ali's conviction must be reversed. The Eugene Register-Guard, reporting on the Court's record, cited "...the boxer's beliefs 'are surely no less religiously based' than those in previous cases."[3][4][24] The Court incorporated Welsh v. United States, in which the Court had ruled that "moral and ethical objection to war was as valid as religious objection, thus broadening the qualifications."[25]

Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong provide an account of the development of the decision in their 1979 book The Brethren. According to that account, Justice Marshall had recused himself because he had been U.S. Solicitor General when the case began, and the remaining eight justices initially voted 5 to 3 to uphold Ali's conviction. However, Justice John Marshall Harlan II, assigned to write the majority opinion, became convinced that Ali's claim to be a conscientious objector was sincere after reading background material on Black Muslim doctrine provided by one of his law clerks. Justice Harlan concluded that the claim by the Justice Department had been a misrepresentation. Harlan changed his vote, tying the vote at 4 to 4. A deadlock would have resulted in Ali being jailed for draft evasion and, since no opinions are published for deadlocked decisions, he would have never known why he had lost. A compromise was proposed by Justice Potter Stewart, in which Ali's conviction would be reversed, citing a technical error by the Justice Department. This gradually won unanimous assent from the eight voting justices, all of whom, with Justice Marshall's recusal, were white.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The petitioner changed his name to "Muhammad Ali" for religious reasons. "Cassius Clay" was his birth name and that was the name under which he was called for induction and later prosecuted.
  2. ^ Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698, 703 (1971).
  3. ^ a b "Court clears Ali of charge". Eugene Register-Guard. Associated Press. June 28, 1971. p. 1.
  4. ^ a b "Ali's draft-evasion conviction overturned". Palm Beach Post. June 29, 1971. p. A1.
  5. ^ "Clay may be put into 1-A class today". Lodi News-Sentinel. UPI. February 10, 1967. p. 13.
  6. ^ "Cassius Clay facing early draft call". Gettysburg Times. Associated Press. February 17, 1966. p. 5.
  7. ^ "Champ now in 1-A class". Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. February 18, 1966. p. 14.
  8. ^ ""The Greatest" Is Gone". Time. 1978-02-27. p. 5. Archived from the original on September 30, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
  9. ^ "This Week in Black History". Jet. 1994-05-02. Archived from the original on 2007-12-10. Retrieved 2007-08-04.
  10. ^ "Muhammad Ali explains his refusal to fight in Vietnam (1967)". alphahistory.com. 12 November 2012. Retrieved 2020-09-22.
  11. ^ "Clay may take draft case to nation's highest court". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Associated Press. January 11, 1967. p. 33.
  12. ^ "Conversation with Muhammad Ali". WGBH, Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. July 7, 1968. Retrieved March 15, 2020.
  13. ^ "Clay tries new route to stay out of army". Bonham Daily Favorite. UPI. February 1, 1967. p. 6.
  14. ^ "Clay induction delayed again; up to Houston". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI. March 28, 1967. p. 1–part 2.
  15. ^ "Ali staggers at new blow". Lewiston Daily Sun. Associated Press. February 21, 1967. p. 16.
  16. ^ Lipsyte, Robert (April 29, 1967). "Clay refuses to heed draft call; is stripped of world boxing title". The Telegraph. Nashua, NH. (New York Times). p. 1.
  17. ^ "Clay won't take draft oath, faces U.S. legal action". Toledo Blace. Associated Press. April 29, 1967. p. 1.
  18. ^ "Grand jury indicts Cassius Clay". Spartanburg Herald. Associated Press. May 9, 1967. p. 10.
  19. ^ "Clay handed conviction in draft case". Toledo Blade. Associated Press. June 21, 1967. p. 1.
  20. ^ "Clay lawyers still confident". Associated Press. June 21, 1967. p. 60.
  21. ^ Waldron, Martin (June 20, 1967). "Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison". The New York Times. p. 1. The jury, six men and six women, all white, stayed in the jury box during the sentencing
  22. ^ Clay v. United States, 397 F.2d 901 (5th Cir. 1968).
  23. ^ "Clay loses appeal in US Court". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI. May 7, 1968. p. 1–part 2.
  24. ^ "Ali 'figured' Court would clear him". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI. June 29, 1971. p. 1–part 2.
  25. ^ REGALADO, SAMUEL (2007). "Clay, aka Ali v. United States (1971): Muhammad Ali, Precedent, and the Burger Court" (PDF). JOURNAL OF SPORT HISTORY. Retrieved 5 June 2016.
  26. ^ Bob Woodward; Scott Armstrong (1981). The Brethren: inside the Supreme Court. Avon Books. pp. 157–160. ISBN 978-0-380-52183-8.

External links[edit]