Buzzkillers by the score have asked us here at the Institute for shows on the Vietnam War. The Ken Burns film on PBS, The Vietnam War, the 18-part, 10-hour interview-thon, is provoking many of you to ask questions about the war and about the protests against it. So today we’re going to look at one of the most well-known quotes from the Vietnam era.
When asked about being drafted for the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest boxers in history, as well as one of the most controversial, is often quoted as saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” This was immediately followed by the now-more-famous quote, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” in a one-two punch of defiance.
Ali’s “quote” summarized in one glaring sentence the idea that oppression against African-Americans started at home, in the United States, and that, as he saw it, African-Americans were being drafted to fight the wrong fight, against the wrong people. It’s one of the most famous sayings from the Vietnam war protest period, but did Ali actually say that phrase, or, more to the point, did Ali coin it?
No, he didn’t coin it, and the evidence is that he certainly didn’t say it in reaction to his draft notification, as is often written. For this episode, Buzzkill Institute scholars have been able to rely on the work of those famous quote investigators, Ralph Keyes and Fred Shapiro, and especially on the excellent journalistic digging of Stefan Fatsis of Slate Magazine.
But the history of this quote (or saying or slogan) also provides us with an opportunity to see how these kinds of ideas and quotes emerge in the culture generally and then how they get attached to the famous, and most-quotable, people involved in the same movement or experience.
On February 17, 1966, while training for a fight against Ernie Terrell, Ali received word that his draft status had been changed from 1-Y (not fit for military draft) to 1-A (the top of the heap). Robert Lypsyte of the New York Times reported that Ali’s first reaction was to ask why the local draft board had changed his draft status so drastically. He complained that he was being singled out, and that, according to Ali, he did more for the military and the Vietnam War by paying enormous taxes on his prizefight winnings than he ever would as a soldier. The reporters around him on that day kept asking him questions about it, though, and one of them eventually asked him something about the North Vietnamese, and the members of its military, the Viet Cong. Ali shrugged and replied, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” And that phrase flew rapidly around the media at the time, with pro-war people speaking out against Ali, and anti-war protesters taking him as one of their own.
But there’s no evidence that Ali followed that reaction with, “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” That was added a few years later because, like so many anonymous quotes, it has more power when attached to an individual, especially one with a strong and forceful personality like Ali.
“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” was already being used by black anti-war protesters in early 1966. On February 23, within a week of Ali’s “no quarrel” comment (which, remember, was _not_ followed by the n-word comment), “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” was spotted on a poster at an anti-war demonstration in New York. The the phrase appeared repeatedly at various protests during that year. It is unknown who thought of it first (although Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis have been cited as possible originators), but there’s no evidence it was Ali.
He did say something very close to it in 1967, when he told an interviewer:
“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. 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? Just take me to jail.”
And he said something very similar later when he talked to the journal Black Scholar in 1970:
“I met two black soldiers a while back in an airport. They said: ‘Champ, it takes a lot of guts to do what you’re doing.’ I told them: ‘Brothers, you just don’t know. If you knew where you were going now, if you knew your chances of coming out with no arm or no eye, fighting those people in their own land, fighting Asian brothers, you got to shoot them, they never lynched you, never called you nigger, never put dogs on you, never shot your leaders. You’ve got to shoot your ‘enemies’ (they call them) and as soon as you get home you won’t be able to find a job. Going to jail for a few years is nothing compared to that.’”
But the “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger” quote became so quickly attached to Ali that he used it in a 1977 film, The Greatest, about himself (in which he played himself). By 1977, Ali may have thought that the phrase was his, and it’s certainly a fact that the wider culture was already attributing it to him by then.
This is how so many famous quote citations are established. Once you’re called “The Greatest,” almost everything drifts your way.
Muhammad Ali, The Greatest: My Own Story (2015).
In his own words, the heavyweight champion of the world pulls no punches as he chronicles the battles he faced in and out of the ring in this fascinating memoir edited by Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Toni Morrison.