Gordon Parks, “Untitled”. Miami, Florida, 1970. Photo © The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery.
In September 1966, LIFE magazine published, “The Redemption of a Champion,” by Gordon Parks, a profile of Muhammad Ali, who had recently changed his name to embody his newly adopted Islamic faith. An exhibition of photographs from the LIFE essay are currently on view in “Gordon Parks: Ali” at Arthur Roger Gallery, New Orleans, through September 19, 2015.
For most in the United States, Ali’s move to Islam came as a shock. The public knew Cassius Clay as the Undisputed Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, who was as quick with his wit as he was with his gloves. They were soon to find out that as Muhammad Ali, the champ was a highly politicized leader intent on speaking truth to power, at whatever cost would come.
By joining the Nation of Islam, aligning himself with Malcolm X, and speaking out against the Vietnam War, Ali stood independent of the popular opinion of the day. Resisting the draft, Ali said, “Those Vietcongs are not attacking me. All I know is that they are considered Asiatic black people, and I don’t have no fight with black people.” Many Caucasian Americans were incensed by Ali’s stance, most evidently those in power, who would go on to strip the champ of his title and his passport, deny him a boxing license in every state, and sentence him to prison for refusing to be conscripted. Ali took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, who, in 1970, overturned his conviction in an unanimous 8-0 ruling, with Thurgood Marshall abstaining.
But the days of reckoning were yet to come. In retrospect, 1966 looks like a more innocent time. Though controversial, Ali was still the champ. In an effort to turn the tides of public opinion in his favor, LIFE assigned Parks to cover Ali, and show a more intimate side of the man who would not back down. Parks, one of the masters of the medium, was the perfect match for Ali.
Parks discovered photography at the age of 25, in 1937. The photography clerks who developed his first roll of film were so impressed with his work that they encouraged him to get fashion assignments from a woman’s clothing store in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his work caught the eye of Marva Louis, the wife of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. She encouraged Parks to move to Chicago, which is where he began his photography career in earnest, quickly becoming one of the foremost artists to ever hold a camera.
By the time Parks met Ali, the two were equally matched, equally gifted with their ability to understand and master the media. Both understood the world in which they lived as black men in America, and the triumphs and the tragedies that come as a result. Both had made history in their own lives, and felt the weight of responsibility to live in truth, justice, and principle. In these photographs, we see a meeting of the mind, hearts, and souls, and what remains are the photographs, to have and behold.
The exhibition also includes a selection of photographs made in 1970, when Parks returned to photograph Ali in Miami, Florida, and London. The exhibition reminds us that the spirit of Ali is with us still, for though the champ no longer speaks, through his pictures we can hear him still.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.