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Gordon Parks

Parks on Muhammad Ali, from "Gordon Parks: Half Past Autumn"

MUHAMMAD ALI'S FLINTY TONGUE had put him on a multitude of burial lists when I visited him in the summer Of 1970. He was at a gym in Miami training for his upcoming fight with Henry Cooper in London. "Dance, baby, dance," Angelo Dundee, his trainer, purred from the ringside. Floating, ducking, pounding his sparring partner with a staccato of fast combinations, All was working hard. Then, to show that he was fit, he allowed his sparring mate to bull him about as Cooper might do. Later, on the rubdown table, he searched for praise from Angelo. "Could I have whupped Joe Louis and Jack Johnson in their time?"

"Baby, you could have whipped everybody in anybody's time."

That's the way things went every day. At his house later that afternoon, he downed a huge steak, stretched out on a couch, and began reading a newspaper. He had resisted the draft. And to that newspaper he was no longer just a loudmouth kid but "a shameless traitor, a bigot and a bum." Surly and tired, he flung the paper into a corner. "I ain't got no quarrel with the Vietcong. Those white devils can burn in hell! Ain't hurting the gates none, just making it harder on their white hopes!" He turned to me. "Why'd you come down here to old hot Miami?"

"Trying to find out if you're as obnoxious as they say you are."

He laughed. "I'm worse, brother. I'm a bad, terrible, awful, cruel black man who won't do what the white man wants him to do. That's why they call me all those names." He reached up and turned on the radio. Sam Cooke had wailed out his latest hit, "Shake," when the announcer's voice cut in: "Cassius Clay is back in town training for his " All twisted the dial, shutting him off in mid sentence. "Cassius Clay! Cassius Clay! I'm on everybody's lips but they won't call me by my right name." He slammed a fist into the palm of his right hand. "Pressure and strain. When you're controversial like me, everybody and his brother tries to burn you!"

"Why set yourself up for it? You've got what you want now. Why not cool it?"

After several moments of silence he said, "People don't ask me to speak at places like they used to. Martin Luther King was the only black leader who sent me a telegram when I became champion of the world."

"You're young yet. They'll come around."

"I aim to go on doing just like I've been doing. I don't owe nobody nothing but Elijah Muhammad. I owe him my life."

I was leaving the next day. It was now or never, so I stuck my neck out. "It's not only the whites. A lot of black people don't like the way you act, or the way you go around preaching hate."

This cut him deeper than I expected. "I've got more important things to do than hatin' white folks. I'm teaching black kids about Elijah Muhammad, and getting myself ready to destroy Cooper. Don't hate lions and tigers either, but I know they bite. The white man's got everything going for him White Swan Soap, White Owl Cigars, Snow White and her little white dwarfs - why's he worryin' about me?"

"What about your draft situation?"

"Elijah Muhammad tells us to pray five times a day. What time does that give me to kill somebody? A couple of years back the army said I was a nut of some kind. Now they've decided I'm smart without even testin' me again. I don't even know where Vietnam is and I ain't going lookin' for it. I ain't killin' nobody unless they come over here and try to kill me. I'm tellin' you like it is."

All had made his point. He was now the world's heavyweight champion. Did that give him the responsibility to think or act differently? A lot of people thought it did. I wasn't too sure. I would have backed up my son David had he resisted going to Vietnam. I left All that evening, not expecting to see him again. But early the next morning he came to drive me to the airport. At the gate he said, "I don't want to do anything to hurt my people. I've been doing a lot of thinking since our talk yesterday. I hope you're gonna be in London with me."

Still searching for the truth in him, I answered, "I'll be there." And I left hoping that one day I would be as proud of him as I was of Joe Louis. In London I witnessed the destruction of Cooper. Afterward at a press conference, All said, "Now that I have done what I came here to do, I'm going back home." Home. He said it in a way that rang softly of contrition. A new and great black hero was slowly emerging.

Time and brutal combat have reduced his voice to a mumble that is close to silence. But the thorns have been digested and the heart, once seething, is no longer angry. He remains sociable but now his eyes do most of the talking. Undoubtedly the bad times still hang in his memory, and one gets the feeling that a question mark hovers above everything spoken to him. His eyes answer, "I know, I know," and their twinkling is often accompanied by an obscure smile. I often think back to his days of travail; to his hours of triumph. Lumped together they bring back some memorable advice I read somewhere or another: "Don't bury a man before death catches up with him."


 

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