Oh Freedom! Gordon Parks

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
Parks' gelatin silver print of Ali jumping with a jumprope.

Gordon Parks (1912–2006), Ali Jumping Rope, 1966, gelatin silver print, 13 3/8 x 9 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, © 1966 Gordon Parks Foundation, 1998.121.4

Student Questions

1. Who is the figure in front of the mirror and what is he doing?

2. The mirror allows us to see both the front and back of the athlete. What can you deduce about his fitness and agility from this photograph? What details help you draw those conclusions?

3. Photographer Gordon Parks contrasts the bright window with the darkened interior. Why do you think he composed the picture that way?

Download This Artwork

About This Artwork

Gordon Parks shows heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali in the 5th Street Gym in Miami, Florida, where he spent countless hours training to earn his self-bestowed title "the Greatest." The photographer positioned himself close to a mirror where he could see the boxer from both the front and the back. The striking contrast between the brightly lit window and the darkened gym interior makes skipping rope seem like high drama. Silhouetting the boxer's superbly conditioned body against the light and catching Ali in mid-air, Parks highlights the dual sources of the boxer's legendary strength, speed, and agility: his natural ability and his dedicated training.

In the gym, Ali seems to be alone except for the photographer and the man in the coat and tie, who watches the boxer intently. Parks allows us to witness an intimate aspect of a great athlete's life: the tedium and loneliness of training. The composition—the doubled mirror image, the heft of the boxer's body suspended in air, the blurred curve of the rope—invites viewers to simultaneously meditate on Ali's inner life and the nature of black celebrity.

In his long career as a photojournalist and filmmaker, Parks frequently explored racial issues. With this photograph, Parks provides a private view of the celebrity fighter who was watched by millions. He also took the photograph during the Vietnam War, when Ali was severely tested because of his religious and political convictions.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, the boxer took home a gold medal from the Rome Olympics and turned professional in 1960. He went on to become the youngest world heavyweight champion in 1964 at age 22. About that time he joined the Nation of Islam, inspired by the human rights activist and fiery orator Malcolm X, whom he befriended. When he won the heavyweight championship, Ali made his name change and religious affiliation public. Because of the anti-white rhetoric of Nation of Islam leaders, Ali, always an outspoken celebrity, became a controversial political figure. Between 1965 and 1967, he defended his heavyweight title nine times. In 1966, Ali claimed to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War based on his Muslim faith, and refused to serve in the war. For this reason, he was stripped of his boxing title in 1967, banned from competing for three years, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to prison. Ali appealed, and in 1970 the Supreme Court reversed his conviction. Parks's portrait of Ali, set in this context, refers not only to his upcoming matches in the ring but also those in the courts and his conscience.

During this ordeal, Ali never backed down. He spoke out often about the prejudice and discrimination he faced as a black man and made insightful if stinging comments in support of civil rights. After a series of dramatic contests, he regained the world heavyweight champion title in 1974. By the time he retired in 1979, he had lost only a handful of nearly sixty fights, and ultimately he regained his popularity. One of the most famous African Americans in history, Ali is now revered as an extraordinary athlete and as a witty commentator on racial and political issues. Capturing Ali at the apex of his strength and influence, Parks's photo reveals the boxer's inner convictions and intensity at a pivotal moment.

About This Artist

Gordon Parks (born Fort Scott, KS 1912–died New York City 2006)

A photo of Gordon Parks looking through a lens

Photograph by Toni Parks, Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation

After seeing some Depression-era documentary photographs, Gordon Parks realized that “the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs…. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.” Born into poverty and lacking a high-school education, Parks purchased a second-hand camera and dedicated himself to his new career. Quickly developing his skills while taking pictures of high society and fashion in Chicago, he also began documenting the poor conditions in the city’s notorious South Side. His sensitive, even elegant, treatment of his subjects won him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which he used to support an apprenticeship with the Farm Security Administration’s photography project. When the agency was disbanded in 1943 and the photography project was transferred to the Office of War Information, Parks was retained as a correspondent. In 1948, after relocating to Harlem, Parks became the first African American photographer hired by Life, the largest circulation magazine at the time, where he remained a contributor until 1972. Beginning in the late 1960s, Parks also directed films, most famously his 1971 hit Shaft, which helped introduce the blaxploitation genre.

Related Material

A photo of boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali.

Everlast boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali, about 1973. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Muhammad Ali (previously known as Cassius Clay) used this headgear while training at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach, Florida. Some argue that in this gym and in the surrounding neighborhood—with its vibrant mix of cultures, politics, and religion—Clay encountered new ideas that would eventually transform his identity. As soon as he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight crown in Miami on February 25, 1964, Clay announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam and would assume his new name, Muhammad Ali.

A photograph of Malcolm X on the street.

Gordon Parks, Malcolm X, 1962. Gelatin silver print, 9 x 13 3/16 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, © Gordon Parks, NPG.98.81

A monumental figure in the history of civil rights, Malcolm X was instrumental in making the campaign more militant and in planting the seeds for the Black Power movement. Gordon Parks’s photograph shows Malcolm X on a New York sidewalk selling a special issue of Muhammad Speaks, the official newspaper of the Nation of Islam. Though Malcolm X did not lead the Nation of Islam, he helped turn the religious group into a formidable political organization during the 1960s.

Fruit of Islam Uniform cap and coat.

Fruit of Islam uniform cap and coat, about 1960. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Founded in 1930, the Nation of Islam had become, by the 1960s, one of the most significant political, social, and religious organizations in the African American community. This suit, worn by a member of the Fruit of Islam (FOI), the paramilitary security force for the Nation of Islam, resembles dress uniforms of the U.S. armed services. Its military-like design purposely commands recognition and respect.