When Gordon Parks photographed and profiled Muhammad Ali for Life magazine in 1966, and then photographed him again in 1970, in some ways he might just as easily have been making self-portraits and writing about himself.

Both men were tenacious fighters. Both men bore the scars of lifelong racism. Both men were internationally acclaimed, yet both were more devoted to speaking out for social justice than seeking out personal success. And though both were celebrated for their nonverbal art – Ali’s balletic boxing and Gordon’s poignant photography – what truly bound them together was their powerful use of words, specifically poetry, to express their optimism for the promise of America – and frustration with the reality. And, more important, to inspire positive change.

Yet Ali’s ascension to African American icon was not automatic in Gordon’s eyes. In his 1966 Life article, a wary Gordon had reservations about Ali’s fitness to be a leader and spokesperson during the tumultuous and violent civil rights movement that clenched the country in an exasperated fist. That year, James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, was shot and wounded by a sniper on the second day of his ‘March Against Fear’, and the NAACP’s Forrest County, Mississippi, chapter president Vernon Dahmer was killed by a fire bomb. Emotions were raw and anger was high. But righteous indignation, no matter how justified, wasn’t the goal. Change was the goal.

The next year, on 4 June 1967, I was placed in a position similar to Gordon’s. At 20 and still a student at UCLA, I was invited to join a group of black athletes in Cleveland who would intensely question Ali before deciding whether or not to support his refusal to submit to the draft, which had resulted in his being stripped of his heavyweight title and facing prison.

As the youngest member of the group, I was both honoured and in awe of our task, because I knew what it meant for Ali the man and for Ali the symbol. This meeting became known as the Cleveland Summit, and far from being a racial rubber stamp of Ali, there were many heated discussions. Some of the athletes had served in the armed forces and were sceptical of Ali’s sincerity as a conscientious objector. Some were devout Christians who questioned his devotion to Islam as convenient. In the end, after many hours of what must have seemed to Ali like hostile interrogation, we agreed that he was indeed an earnest Muslim, whose defiance of the draft was an expression of his religious convictions.

Ali at Lord’s Cricket Ground
Muhammad Ali in Training,

In 1966, the insightful and articulate Gordon Parks was asking himself some of those same questions. Sure, Ali had chewed up and spit out every Great White Hope who had been thrown at him, making him a street-corner folk hero, but that in itself didn’t make him a Great Black Hope of a leader. Leadership required more than brashness and charm, it required commitment and focus. Eyes on the real prize, not on a championship belt.

At their 1966 meeting, Gordon was 53 and Ali 24. It’s clear from their conversation that Ali respected Gordon’s opinion of him. And Gordon was candid about his doubts regarding Ali’s fitness as a leader of his people. “It’s not only white people,” Gordon told Ali, “but a lot of Negroes don’t like the way you act.”

I had met Ali that same year, while I was a freshman at UCLA. He’d been walking along Sunset Boulevard performing sleight-of-hand magic tricks for delighted fans.

Despite my shyness I introduced myself, because I had been a devoted fan ever since he’d won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He was funny and gracious, and then he moved on.

A few weeks later, we met again at a party for USC and UCLA athletes. My shyness kept me lurking in the shadows until the band took a break. Then I wandered over to their instruments and quietly improvised a drum solo. Ali appeared out of nowhere, grabbed a guitar, and pretended to accompany me. He was witty, charismatic, and charming – and an inspirational athlete. But I hadn’t thought of him as a leader, as a man with a fiery passion for social justice and self-sacrifice, like Malcolm X and Dr King.

Ali at 5th Street Gym

It is a testament to the power of Ali that he managed to change the minds of both Gordon and me. My mind was changed during the Cleveland Summit, while listening to Ali’s impassioned yet rational defence of his faith. He showed me a man of integrity who was willing to risk his career and freedom to do what he thought was right.

For Gordon, that moment had come in England in summer 1966, after Ali knocked out local champion Brian London in the third round with a 12-punch combination delivered in three punishing seconds. Instead of the usual brashness in victory, Ali was reserved, serious. “For, at last, he seemed fully aware of the kind of behaviour that brings respect,” Gordon observed in the essay he wrote for Life.

“Already a brilliant fighter, there was hope now that he might become a champion everyone could look up to.” That’s exactly the kind of man Ali became, and I can’t help believing that Gordon’s straight talk with a young and impetuous Ali had a lot to do with that.

After years of admiring his photography, I finally had the honour of meeting Gordon in 1992. Howard Bingham, Ali’s personal photographer, introduced us at a film event, but I had already seen Gordon’s thick grey hair and even thicker moustache across the room. As we shook hands, I could imagine some of his famous photographs, indelibly etched in my mind.

I had always appreciated the way his work revealed the richness as well as the harshness of the lives of black Americans. Also, I recalled my sense of pride sitting in a theatre and watching Shaft, the movie he directed that was one of the first featuring a black action hero. Leaving the theatre, we all walked a little straighter, with just a little more swagger, with a little more hope.

Ultimately, hope was what Gordon tried to inspire in others through his art. His images captured the vast depth and abundance of the black experience, the giddy elation and debilitating agonies. The challenge for all of us is to see the world in its raw indifference and, as he put it, “accept life gracefully.” To do that, we need the companionship of hope and faith, which Gordon expressed so movingly in his poem ‘Come Sing with Me!’

Hope is the song I have chosen to sing –

a deathless song, flowing steadily beside my faith.

Whenever the first doubt knocks at my door,

it is powerfully turned away by my hopeful singing.

When things go from bad to worse I still sing my song.

That song of hope echoes in every photograph he ever took, every poem he ever wrote, and every person he ever met. 

Ali vs Henry Cooper
Muhammad Ali

This essay originally featured in the new photographic tome Gordon Parks: Muhammad Ali (Steidl/The Gordon Parks Foundation/The Nelson-Atkins Museum Of Art).

It is out now for €48. steidl.de