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..
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
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.
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..