It was a sad sight: Stripped of his crown, the former heavyweight champion of the world was reduced to making a paid appearance at a boat show in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
“I am not allowed to work in America and I’m not allowed to leave America,” Muhammad Ali said in February 1968, at the start of his first full year of exile from boxing. “I’m just about broke.”
Married a year with his first child on the way, Ali was so desperate his manager tried to arrange a bout in Arizona on an Indian reservation – outside the reach of state boxing commissions that wouldn’t let him fight. But the Pima tribe rejected the proposal, saying it would defile the memory of Indian veterans who’d fought for their country.
The previous April, Ali had declared himself a conscientious objector and refused induction into the U.S. Army, famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
By 1968, 19,560 Americans had died in the Vietnam War and another 16,502 would die that year alone. It was the year the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army mounted the Tet Offensive, an ambitious campaign that helped persuade the American public that the war wasn't going as well as the generals and politicians had led them to believe.
The war was escalating, as was opposition to it. Just a few weeks before Ali said no to his draft board, Martin Luther King Jr., had denounced the war. He later quoted Ali in support of his position: "As "Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression."
Ali was already one of America's greatest heavyweights ever. He'd won an Olympic gold medal for the United States in Rome when he was just 18 and four years later, against all odds, defeated Sonny Liston to win his first title as world champion.
And in an era when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in the spotlight. He was the master of "rhyming prediction and derision," as biographer David Remnick would later write. He was already "the greatest," as he proclaimed himself, not just for his skills in the ring, but for talking trash – and doing it in verse.
It wasn't just what he said, but how he said it, poet Maya Angelou later put it.
"'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee' – I mean, as a poet, I like that," she once said. "If he hadn't put his name on it, I might have chosen to use that."
Now Ali was paying the price for refusing to serve. Convicted of violating selective service laws and sentenced to five years in prison, he was free on bail. But his passport had been taken away, along with his ability to make a living.
With his characteristic bluster, he insisted he didn’t ache for the money or the ring. Asked during a television appearance if he missed being heavyweight champion, he deadpanned, “No, they miss me.”
But sportswriter Dave Kindred, who interviewed Ali at the boat show for the Courier-Journal, wrote that the more Ali talked about not missing the ring, the more you realized he did.
“It was his identity,” Kindred said recently. “Boxing gave him his sense of self.”
Without it, recalled New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, who traveled with Ali in 1968, “He could get moody and down.” Without boxing, Lipsyte said, Ali was often alone – and he was “not a guy who liked to be alone.”
In the decades to come, his country and the world would come to embrace him as an ambassador of peace and goodwill. And after his death in 2016, his legacy grew larger still.
So it is easy to forget that 50 years ago, in the tumult of 1968, Ali didn’t know how things would turn out, or if he’d ever fight again, said Bill Siegel, whose 2013 film, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, documented Ali's four years away from the ring.
It's easy, Siegel said, to forget that Ali "was willing to sacrifice everything on principle.”
Refusing induction, Ali cited religious reasons, specifically, the Quran's ban on Muslims fighting Christian wars, but his objection was far broader.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?"
It was a humbling year for Ali, but also one of remarkable growth. Exiled from boxing, he grew bigger than the sport.
Yet he was still widely reviled.
Popular black athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis denounced him. Time magazine, ripping him for his opposition to the war and his embrace of the Nation of Islam, called him "Gaseous Cassius," a reference to what he called his slave name, Cassius Clay.
In Chicago, where he spent much of his banishment, Mayor Richard Daley refused to call him by his Muslim name, and Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner called him “unpatriotic.”
On British television, famed talk show host David Susskind excoriated Ali as “a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession.” Ali, Susskind said, was a “simplistic pawn and a fool.”
To pay the bills and help support his wife, Khalilah, and their child, Ali embarked on a college speaking tour, earning pennies on the dollar compared to his time in the ring.
His first lecture, at Philadelphia's Temple University, paid $1,000. The next, at Cheney State College in Pennsylvania, half that.
He ended his appearance at Union College in New York with a poem: “I like your school and admire your style, but your pay is so small, I won’t be back for a while.”
At first he was a terrible speaker, Lipsyte and others recalled. He spewed religious dogma from Nation of Islam, which he had joined four years earlier, regurgitating the words of its leader, Elijah Muhammad.
At University of Wisconsin, students booed when he denounced interracial marriage as “a trick to keep us with the white man,” as they did the next day in San Francisco when he complained about the marijuana smell wafting from the crowd and insisted no “intelligent so-called Negro would allow his daughter to marry a white man.”
He distanced himself from the Civil Rights Movement, telling 400 men and women he wouldn't join them in the Poor People’s Campaign “because I don’t believe in turning the other cheek.”
“I don’t say we shall overcome,” he said at another appearance, “because I done overcame.”
But Ali’s speeches got better. He warmed to the crowds, and they to him. Lipsyte said Ali, though poorly educated, was a quick study.
“He had a real intellectual growth spurt,” Lipsyte said.
Ali developed his own consciousness, moving away from Nation of Islam orthodoxy. He delivered lengthy soliloquies on his objection to the war and his experience with racism in America.
Verbally sparring with students forced him to become an independent thinker, said Kindred, who later wrote Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, Fateful Friendship, a dual biography of Ali and sportscaster Howard Cosell,
And as the anti-war movement grew, Ali became a hero.
“Anti-war activists didn't care what he said about Elijah or the Nation, they cared only that the most famous man on Earth shared their opposition to that war,” Kindred said.
“He became a man,” Spiegel said.
Ali also helped move black radicalism into the mainstream, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. later wrote.
He forged an unlikely alliance with King, who on the face of it had no grounds for common cause or friendship. The Nation of Islam bitterly opposed integration. Malcolm X had derided King's seminal 1963 "March on Washington" as "the Farce on Washington."
But King and Ali found common bond through their opposition to the war – and the hatred they both faced. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation, wrote that famed 1968 Olympian and protester John Carlos once told him, "If there was an Olympic sport for the number of death threats received, King and Ali would be fighting for the gold."
King, hoping Ali's story would inspire others to refuse to serve in the war, singled out the boxer for praise in a sermon.
"He is giving up his fame," King said. "He is giving up millions of dollars in order to stand for what his conscience tells him is right. No matter what you think of his religion, you have to admire his courage."
In May 1968, a federal appeals court affirmed Ali’s conviction, saying "Clay had been fairly accorded due process of law, without discrimination.”
But Ali’s popularity was soaring, and he knew it. While he was driving in the San Francisco Bay Area, a black man on a bicycle spotted Ali and thrust his hand through an open window, Lipsyte wrote in a column.
“Let me shake the hand of the only real heavyweight champion of the world,” the man said.
Ali was overjoyed.
“They made me bigger by taking my title,” he told Lipsyte. “Before, that chap on the street couldn’t identify with me. He’d say, ‘You not with me, you up on the hill with whitey.’
“There are only two kinds of men,” Ali continued, “those who compromise and those who take a stand.”
Ali told Pacifica Radio he was “proud to say that I am the first man in the history of all America, athlete and entertainer-wise, who gave up all the white man’s money, looked the white man in the eye, and told him the truth, and stayed with his people."
If he had ever lost his mojo, by October 1968 it was back.
Striding down West 52nd Street in New York, he hummed a song in the cold evening air, walking with the “bright swagger of a champion,” Pete Hamill wrote in LIFE magazine. “People stepped out of a steak house to watch him go by. Auto horns beeped in salute. A middle-aged lady asked him to autograph her newspaper.
"Look at me,’” Ali said softly, "Bigger than boxing. As big as all history."
As Ali’s consciousness grew, so did the nation’s.
“The speeches were important, not just for Ali but for everyone who heard them,” Lipsyte said.
Muhammad Ali through the years
Ali particularly influenced black athletes, as dramatically seen at the 1968 Summer Olympics when medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute Smith later called an endorsement of all human rights.
African-American athletes today continue that tradition as they kneel during the National Anthem to protest mistreatment by police.
But his story inspired all athletes to stand up for equality in their sport, and beyond. Baseball players fought for free agency; track stars to end the sham of amateurism; and women for equal tennis prize money.
“I really believe if Ali hadn’t done what he did, Smith and Carlos wouldn’t have raised their fists,” Arthur Ashe, the pioneering black tennis star who protested apartheid and raised awareness about AIDS, said in the 1995 oral history Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champ.
“He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of the black athlete’s responsibility to get involved,” Ashe said. “He put it all on the line for what he believed in. And if Ali did that, who were the rest of us lesser athlete mortals not to do it?”
With his Supreme Court appeal still pending, Ali's promoter arranged a fight in Georgia, which had no state boxing commission. Despite the objections of segregationist Gov. Lester Maddox, Ali took on Jerry Quarry in Atlanta on Oct. 26, 1970, and beat him in the third round.
His lawyers also won a court order forcing the New York State Athletic Commission to let him fight. The following March he lost the 15-round “Fight of the Century” to Joe Frazier.
But on June 28, 1971, he won his biggest victory: The Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction, saying his draft board failed to specify why his conscientious objector application was denied. Throughout the war, Selective Service granted more than 170,000 men C.O. status.
Ali twice reclaimed his heavyweight championship – and the hearts of some who supported the war. In 2005, wracked by Parkinson’s, his hands shaking, he accepted the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, at a White House ceremony.
“The American people,” said President George W. Bush, “are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own.”
Follow Andrew Wolfson on Twitter: @adwolfson. For more stories in the 1968 project, visit 1968.usatoday.com