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GORDON PARKS: ALI
Miss Rosen for Crave Online

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 9, 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..

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Photo: Gordon Parks, “Untitled”. London, England, 1966. Photo © The Gordon Parks Foundation, courtesy of Arthur Roger Gallery