How Muhammad Ali helped me get the government to respect my religious beliefs

By Eric Mink

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have the love and support of family, friends, teachers, mentors and colleagues. Sometimes even people I don’t really know — readers, mostly — have shown me incredible kindnesses. 

But only a handful of people have significantly shaped the kind of person I am. Among them: my dad and mom, Joe and Ida; my siblings Caryn, Marc and Barry; and Muhammad Ali.

Ali’s pursuit of fair treatment under the law began about two years before mine. With the Vietnam War raging and young men subject to a mandatory military draft, Ali and I cited personal religious beliefs and sought official designation as conscientious objectors to war and killing. Federal law explicitly exempted from military service those who qualified.

When I filed for C-O status (technically, 1-O) with my local draft board in September 1968, I was a 20-year-old white kid from University City starting my senior year in college. I had no idea what I would do with the rest of my life.


When Ali asked his Louisville draft board for C-O status in February 1966, he was an irrepressible, 24-year-old black man and the heavyweight champion of the world.

Ali based his beliefs about war and killing on the teachings of Islam and its holy book, the Quran, as interpreted and practiced by the controversial Chicago-based Nation of Islam. The group also advocated racial separation and black superiority, and its leaders often spewed hateful rhetoric, including anti-Semitic diatribes. (Ali left the Nation of Islam in the mid-1970s and embraced Sunni Islam.)

My conscientious objections grew from the example of my father’s personal non-violence (he served with distinction in a medical unit during World War II), my Jewish religion and my personal beliefs and values. With guidance from the Jewish Peace Fellowship and others, I fortified my application with excerpts from the Torah, the Talmud and the prophets and letters of support from rabbis and my professors of religion and philosophy at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Ali was publicly vilified. His religious beliefs were dismissed and demeaned. He refused military induction on principle and was indicted, convicted, fined and sentenced to prison. He lost legal appeals for more than five years before being vindicated at the Supreme Court on June 28, 1971. The struggle cost him millions of dollars.

My case was over in less than a year. There were no court proceedings and no legal setbacks. It cost me virtually nothing. I was demeaned only once — by a draft board member during a 15-minute private hearing. In July 1969, the board granted my request for C-O status.

Ali’s quest, the outcome of which was very much in doubt when mine began, helped me bring clarity, focus, patience and good faith to my efforts.

His refusal to betray his religious beliefs gave me strength. His determination in the face of massive political, social and legal forces aligned against him inspired me. 

I felt fired up by the logic, anger and humor Ali lobbed at ignorant institutions that nullified his championship, refused to issue licenses to let him box and insulted his faith. And I took heart from Ali’s willingness to risk his freedom by insisting that his government treat him fairly.

A new made-for-TV movie premiering Saturday night on HBO calls this legal battle “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” but the film feels flat and forced despite its abundance of talent. (Stephen Frears directs; Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Danny Glover and others star.)

It focuses on behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Supreme Court justices and clerks as they wrangle over Ali’s case in 1971. It’s fascinating stuff to amateur legal nerds like me, but Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s 1979 book, “The Brethren,” covered it in 2½ pages.

Ali is seen only in news footage, and when clips of the brash young boxer appear on screen, they actually underscore the lifelessness of the rest of the film.

The first time I saw Muhammad Ali in person, he was fighting, but not in a boxing ring. He was on stage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium as part of a three-year college speaking tour.

Ali was taking his battle with the government to campus communities as opposition to the Vietnam War grew and the specter of the draft loomed large. It was May 5, 1969, a month before I graduated.

Ali’s presentation included some of the Nation of Islam’s dreary race-separation talking points (but no anti-Semitism). And when Ali turned to war, peace and the law, his arguments –- amplified by the formidable power of his personality — electrified the crowd, me included.

The last time I saw Ali was at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on March 20, 1992. He was in St. Louis to attend a Leon Spinks fight and to promote a business deal with Sprint that benefited the Muhammad Ali Foundation.

I tried to monitor the progress of his session with some reporters and editors from across the newsroom. I was hoping to grab a moment with him afterward, but I got pulled away and didn’t see when the meeting ended. Told that Ali had just left, I flew down five flights of stairs and ran out of the lobby onto Tucker Boulevard. A limousine was parked at the curb, motor running.

I knocked on a darkened side window and pulled the door open. Ali, alone in the back seat, looked over at me. Breathless and nervous, I ducked my head into the car, extended my right hand and, as best I recall, said, “Champ, I just wanted to say how much I admire you and what an inspiration you’ve been to me.”

Ali seemed puzzled. In a voice almost too soft and slow to hear, he said, “You’re tired of me?” “No, no, no!” I said, panicking, repeating what I’d said, explaining how much I respected him, apologizing …

And then his face changed. He smiled. He extended his hand, took hold of mine and held it warmly. He had only pretended to have misheard. Ali had tricked me, something he took delight in doing to people whenever an opportunity arose. 

I took a breath, smiled back, thanked him again and closed the limo door. I felt as though I had completed a circle.