Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali

The Gordon Parks Foundation - The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

By The Gordon Parks Foundation

Muhammad Ali in Training, Miami Beach, Florida (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

I speak of a hero
with
Anger in his heart,

with
Fury in his fist,

And terror in his sleep.
Who Muhammad Ali is

is what he is
And that is,

As he would say,
Exactly the way it is.


From Moments Without Proper Names, by Gordon Parks, 1975

Gordon Parks with Muhammad Ali and others, London, England (1966) by Photographer unknownThe Gordon Parks Foundation

In 1966, Life magazine assigned Gordon Parks to cover the controversial young boxing champion Muhammad Ali. In 1970, the two came together again for a second Life feature. These encounters framed a critical passage in Ali’s early career. In the midst of the civil rights movement, Ali’s anti-Vietnam War and black separatist views were unpopular with many Americans. As Ali fought for his beliefs, Parks used his talents as a journalist to help re-shape the boxer’s public image. Despite their generational differences, Parks and Ali both battled racism and prejudice throughout their careers. They understood the power of media to influence popular opinion. Ali cultivated a contentious, memorable media persona, while Parks used the broadly influential platform of Life to present a sympathetic image of Ali during this formative period. 

Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida (1966) by Gordon ParksOriginal Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.2

The portrait of Muhammad Ali that emerges in Parks’s photographs — the athlete, private man, controversial figure of politics and religion, and cultural icon — was more complex, more human, than the image the press often portrayed. Parks’s photographs, largely unpublished at the time, capture a crucial chapter in the life of the fighter we still call “the greatest.”


The images included in this online exhibition reflect a selection of works from the publication Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali and related exhibition Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali: The Image of a Champion 1966 / 1970 organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation. 

Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Muhammad Ali, Miami Beach, Florida (1966) by Gordon ParksOriginal Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.55

“Redeeming” the Champion in Wordsand Pictures: 1966

Gordon Parks first met Muhammad Ali in the spring of 1966. Ali’s public image was, as Parks described it, “in tatters…He [had become], in the public eye, not just a loud-mouthed kid but a ‘shameless traitor.’” Ali had publicly denounced the war in Vietnam; the following year, he would be stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing the draft. Many Americans vilified him for joining the Nation of Islam, a religious and political organization that promoted black separatism over racial integration.

Over several weeks, Parks photographed the champion in Miami and London as he trained for a fight against the English boxer Henry Cooper. Life published only three of the 850 images Parks took for the assignment in the September 9, 1966, issue, accompanied by Parks’s essay, “The Redemption of the Champion.” Through his earnest reporting, Parks conveyed a nuanced portrait that brought readers closer to understanding Ali’s motivations and beliefs. 

Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1966, Original Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.8
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Untitled, Miami, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Untitled, Miami, Florida (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

Ali and the Nation of Islam

Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam (NOI), a religious and political organization of black separatists, unsettled many Americans. On a previous Life assignment, Parks spent time with the group’s leaders, including (at that time) Malcolm X. Though Parks disagreed with many of the NOI’s tenets, he understood the anger and frustration of its members in the wake of the era’s brutal racial violence. 

Parks describes the impact of the NOI on Ali’s beliefs in his 1966 written essay for Life, but his photographs of these encounters were not printed. Parks and the editors of Life knew that pictures had a more immediate impact than words and could be misinterpreted without additional context. In the eyes of a polarized public, such images would likely have undermined the nuanced portrait of Ali that Parks aimed to impart. 

Untitled, London, England (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

“Some mornings…I came upon him with his hands lifted, facing the East, mumbling prayers to Allah. Sometimes he seemed disgruntled…Then he would be in high spirits…It was never easy to know which of his different selves would be visible.”

Untitled, Miami, Florida (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

“Later that night, I went with him to the local mosque meeting. [He] was dressed in his new blue-serge uniform of the Fruit of Islam, the tough and elite Muslim guard…Lucius Bey’s message was still burning inside Muhammad the next day.”

Untitled, Miami, Florida (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

“I never witnessed the hatred he is assumed to have for whites. But I did see him standing in the burning sun for an hour, signing autographs for southern white children. And I did go with him on a visit to a young white hemophiliac one afternoon.”

Untitled (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

The physical impact of boxing took its toll on fighters. In 1966, Ali, while strong and healthy, was already suffering. His knuckles had become bruised and painful, a fact that his trainer, Angelo Dundee, tried to hide from opponents and the public. This stark close-up of Ali’s raw and calloused knuckles, clenched into fists, emphasizes the physical brutality of the sport, even for an athlete as seemingly invincible as the young Ali.

Untitled, London, England (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

Untitled, London, England (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

Gordon Parks made one of his most arresting portraits of Ali during his visit to Lord’s Cricket Ground, just after he defeated Henry Cooper in London’s Arsenal Stadium on May 21. Formally dressed, the boxer appears thoughtful, peaceful, and confident. Posed looking into the light, Ali appears “illuminated,” both literally and spiritually.  Hanging on the wall behind him is an English sporting portrait. Ensuring that the painting is visible, Parks aligns Ali’s athletic legacy with celebrated historical precedents. Parks presents Ali as a man whose legend will endure, and a figure who firmly belongs in sporting history.

Muhammad Ali Interviewed by Reporters, London, England (1966) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

Ali
in the Public Eye: 1966 

A master of media hype, Ali riveted reporters and taunted opponents with his rhyming poems, bold predictions, and public insults. These antics worked to his advantage and detriment. As a journalist Parks understood how easily Ali’s brazen quotes could be taken out of context and turn public sentiment against him.

Parks’s concerns derived from decades of personal experience. Parks was the only full-time black photojournalist hired at Life, a magazine whose editorial staff and primary readership were white and middle-class. Parks regularly took on stories about black America. As racial violence escalated during the 1960s, Parks, in his words, “walked a tight rope” at the magazine. He found himself caught between sympathy for his subjects and the critical distance his job as a reporter demanded.

Dozens of photographs from the 1966 assignment suggest that Parks found Ali’s relationship with the media fascinating. Often, Parks foregrounds the media frenzy around Ali during his many public appearances leading up to the fight.  

Untitled, London, England, Gordon Parks, 1966, Original Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.3
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Untitled, London, England, Gordon Parks, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Untitled, London, England (1966) by Gordon ParksOriginal Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.4

Untitled, London, England, Gordon Parks, 1966, Original Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.5
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Muhammad Ali Fights Henry Cooper in Highbury, London, England, Gordon Parks, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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"'No More Boasting, Just the Fight'", Life Magazine "'No More Boasting, Just the Fight'", Life Magazine (October 23, 1970) by Life magazineThe Gordon Parks Foundation

“LookOut-He’s Back!”: 1970

In April 1967, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title. Convicted on charges of draft evasion, he was banned from professional boxing in the United States. For the next three-and-a-half years, pending appeal of his case, Ali traveled across the country, speaking out against the Vietnam War and American racism.

During this period, public sentiment increasingly turned against the war. Ali's views sharpened as he spoke to college students, many of whom had participated in the antiwar and civil rights movements. Over time, Ali's dedication to causes beyond prize money and sponsorship earned him the respect of a broad, middle-class public.

 

By 1970, Ali was eager to return to boxing. Life published Parks’s photographs of Ali preparing for his highly anticipated comeback fight against Jerry Quarry. Parks’s striking color portrait of Ali made the magazine’s cover, accompanied by the headline, “Look out-he’s back! A different Muhammad Ali returns to the ring.” No longer in need of “redemption,” as implied in Parks’s 1966 article, Ali was reentering the public arena brimming with confidence and a heightened sense of purpose. 

Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1970, Original Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.7
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Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida, Gordon Parks, 1970, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Untitled, Miami, Florida (1970) by Gordon ParksOriginal Source: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, anonymous gift, 2019.14.12

Slides, "Cassius Clay, Boxer," Life story no. V85362 (1970) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

Muhammad Ali and Gordon Parks (1966) by Howard BinghamThe Gordon Parks Foundation

The enormity of Ali’s fame, and the bravado he often displayed, could have made him a difficult subject for Parks. But Parks was no ordinary photographer. It is a testament to his immense talent, and the trust these two men placed in one another, that the photographer was able to convey the complexity and humanity of the young athlete at this crucial moment in Ali’s early career.

As historian Gerald Early so eloquently writes in his catalogue essay, “Even [Ali] could not control the transcendent nature of his own meaning, which may signify that in a way he made being black a transcendent kind of humanity.”



Using his influential platform at Life magazine, Gordon Parks helped shape that meaning, and indeed embodied a transcendent humanity himself. Ultimately, the remarkable success of these two men went well beyond the pages of Life, reshaping American culture and the annals of history. 

"The Redemption of the Champion", Life Magazine "The Redemption of the Champion", Life Magazine, Life magazine, September 6, 1966, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Click on the magazine covers to explore each photoessay.

"'No More Boasting, Just the Fight'", Life Magazine "'No More Boasting, Just the Fight'", Life Magazine, Life magazine, October 23, 1970, From the collection of: The Gordon Parks Foundation
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Untitled, Miami Beach, Florida (1970) by Gordon ParksThe Gordon Parks Foundation

Bios

Gordon Parks was born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912. An itinerant laborer, he worked as a brothel pianist and railcar porter, among other jobs, before buying a camera at a pawnshop, training himself, and becoming a photographer. During his storied tenures photographing for the Farm Security Administration (1941–1945) and Life magazine (1948–c. 1971), Parks evolved into a modern-day Renaissance man: he found success as a film director, writer, and composer. The first African American director to helm a major motion picture, he introduced the Blaxploitation genre through his film Shaft (1971). He wrote numerous memoirs, novels, and books of poetry, and received countless awards, including the National Medal of Arts, and more than fifty honorary degrees. Parks died in 2006. Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. (1942-2016), was an American professional boxer, activist, and philanthropist. Nicknamed “The Greatest,” he is widely regarded  as one of the most significant sports figures of the twentieth century and one of the greatest boxers of all time. 

Credits: Story

The Gordon Parks Foundation permanently preserves the work of Gordon Parks, makes it available to the public through exhibitions, books, and electronic media, and supports artistic and educational activities that advance what Parks described as “the common search for a better life and a better world.”

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is recognized nationally and internationally as one of America’s finest art museums. The encyclopedic museum, which strives to be the place where the power of art engages the spirit of community, opens its doors free of charge to people of all backgrounds.

Selection and text:April M. Watson, Curator, Photography, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Select quotes by Gordon Parks from his essay “The Redemption of the Champion,” Life magazine September 9, 1966 and Gerald Early, Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and chair of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Washington University, St. Louis, from his essay “The Four Alis,” in Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali (Steidl, 2019).

Production assistance: Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr., Executive Director; Amanda Smith, Assistant Director; James Jordan, Archive Manager; and Sam Cameron, Collection Manager, all of The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Copyrights:© 2019 The Gordon Parks Foundation for images by Gordon Parks.
© 2019 Time Inc. for the Life facsimiles

Credits: All media

The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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