© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Muhammad Ali Without The Bravado: A Gordon Parks Photo Exhibit In Kansas City Shows A Quieter Champ

Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks Foundation
Muhammad Ali in London, 1966

Before Cassius Clay took the name Muhammad Ali, he was a 22-year-old who’d been rechristened “the champ,” the greatest boxer in the world.

Long-time Life magazine photojournalist and renaissance man Gordon Parks was assigned to cover the young man twice, once in 1966 and again in 1970. What Parks found after many meetings was a 24-year-old with bruised fists looking for approval — a side of the superstar the public hadn't seen.

Many of the more than 850 shots from those meetings have also never been seen, but 55 of them are now on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Ali, who died in 2016, at one time mugged for every camera put in his face, regularly boasted about being the champ, and was outspoken on his thoughts about Civil Rights-era race relations.

But he once told Parks: "Do you know that Martin Luther King was the only Negro leader who sent me a telegram when I became champion of the world — the only one. I was just a dumb kid thinking all of them would be so proud of me."

Parks, who was born in Ft. Scott, Kansas, was the only black photographer at Life for more than a decade. He went on to direct films like "Shaft" and to compose music, essays and poetry before he died in 2006. In 1966, he wrote a Life article about Ali that is largely credited with saving the boxer's reputation.

Credit Gordon Parks / Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks Foundation
Muhammad Ali in training in Miami Beach, 1966.

Within two years of winning the heavyweight title, Parks wrote, Ali's "public image was in tatters. He stood accused in the press of sins ranging from talking too much to outright anti-white bigotry."

Two unpopular moves further hurt his reputation: Ali had joined the Nation of Islam but refused to join the Army, saying, "I don't have no quarrel with those Vietcongs."

Parks set out on the assignment feeling that he wasn't "proud" of Ali. He wanted Ali to be a hero, but "he wasn’t making it," Parks wrote.

"I had come to Miami to see whether he was really as obnoxious as people were making him out to be."

Parks told Ali that, and the fighter responded, "No need to beat around the bush, brother, I know why you came."

Nelson-Atkins curator April Watson suggests that it was understood that Parks, who was about 30 years older than Ali, was there to help restore the fighter's image.

"(Parks) was walking a tightrope between his desire to be an objective reporter, but also a real sympathy for his black subjects," Watson says.

The magazine's demographic was mostly white and middle class. Many of its readers weren't sure what to make of the world heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist. 

Watson says Parks "was able to use his influence to shape a sympathetic portrait of Ali." 

A new book works in tandem with the exhibition to tell that story. "Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali," from the German photography-book publisher Steidl in collaboration with the Nelson-Atkins and the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York, contains 115 images selected by Watson, who contributed an essay on the meetings of the two men.

Credit Gordon Parks / Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks Foundation
Gordon Parks' photograph of Muhammad Ali's fists.

"I think Ali let down his guard because he trusted Parks. Otherwise, you know, who was the real Ali?" Watson says, referencing the bravado usually seen in shots of Ali taken by other photographers.

It happened that Parks' son was nearly the same age as Ali. "But this boy, unlike my son, was not receptive to outright advice," Parks wrote in the Life article. "Even when you gave it gently you got silence — no response at all." 

However, Ali did appear to mature in the course of his interactions with Parks, and Parks reveals that change in the article, which only includes three photos.

He quotes Ali acknowledging to the press that in the past he'd said and done things not becoming of a champion, then: "But I'm a champion now. And today I'm measuring my words. I'm measuring my deeds. I'm measuring my thoughts." 

The journalist halfway doubted the resolve would last. But toward the end of the article, he noted, "at last he seemed fully aware of the kind of behavior that brings respect. Already a brilliant fighter, there was hope now that he might become a champion everyone could look up to." 

"Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali: 1966|1970, the image of a champion" through July 5 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street Kansas City, Missouri. On March 12, Watson mediates a conversation between Damion Thomas, curator of sports at the National Museum of African American History, and William Rhoden, former New York Times sports columnist.

Follow KCUR contributor Anne Kniggendorf on Twitter, @AnneKniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.