Muhammad Ali’s quest for conscientious objector status reveals a stark and potentially troubling aspect of African American religious history: he was one of the few African American religious figures up to that moment to publicly critique the moral legitimacy of U.S. foreign policy with respect to warfare. At the same time, it appears that relatively few religious officials of any race supported Muhammad Ali in his bout with the government. There was, for example, the Reverend Gerald E. Forshey, a white Methodist minister, who wrote to the Houston Office of Selective Service claiming that Ali’s status as a minister within the Nation of Islam entitled him to the same 4-D classification and exemption from military service that Forshey received because of his ecclesiastical affiliation. But Forshey seems more the exception than the rule.
The denunciation of public figures opposed to the war could be nearly absolute. Indeed, one of the most controversial and socially contentious moments in the life of the Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. happened in the months following his moral critique of America’s war in Vietnam. Occurring just three weeks prior to Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the military, King was met with public vitriol from politicians, journalists and ministers alike.
Notwithstanding King’s treatment, within the context of African American history, military service in the U.S. Armed Forces has traditionally been understood as a conduit through which African Americans could legitimize their claims and struggle for true citizenship in America. From the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment to the Buffalo Soldiers to the Tuskegee Airmen, this appears evident in the canon of histories and film that glamorize, if not sanctify, African American contributions to American war efforts. Yet, the moral dilemma that this approach to history raises is all the more revealing: are African Americans willing to ignore the suffering of others if it means access to the privileges of American citizenship? What is the proper relationship between religion, religious institutions and government? More specifically, where did African American clergy in Houston, Texas, stand with respect to Muhammad Ali’s struggle to obtain conscientious objector status? How did King’s position on the war influence or reinforce their position on Ali and the war? These questions raise larger issues about the role of religion in African American political life, and balancing civil liberties with national interests.