Muhammad Ali and Trevor Berbick. Photo: Jim Clark
Muhammad Ali and Trevor Berbick. Photo: Jim Clark

A devoted fan of the Chicago Cubs, I routinely travelled with my family from our home in nearby Gary, Indiana to cheer the baseball team. One day, when I was about 12, we arrived at Wrigley Field for a game. Back then, vendors hawked popcorn in cardboard containers that, when emptied, were easily transformed into megaphones.

I was happily munching my treat when my father nudged my shoulder and pointed toward a dapper man in an alpaca sweater who was standing a few rows behind us. Dad uttered two words: “Joe Louis.”

With that, I dumped the remainder of my popcorn and scurried over to The Brown Bomber. I sheepishly handed him my container which he signed with a flourish.

Fast forward 50 years and I’m in the Chase Gallery at the Nova Scotia Public Archives in Halifax. The “Memorable Encounters” photography exhibit is poised to be removed in about an hour. I’m grateful to view an installation that, sadly, few people visited during its three week run this past February.

The free exhibition featured Gary Castle portraits of figures such as jazz drummer Jerry Granelli. Albert Lee showcased images from his travels around the globe.

But spurred by my youthful encounter with Joe Louis, I’d been drawn to the gallery by the work of Jim Clark, who’d focused his lens on a single subject — Muhammad Ali. The irrepressible boxing champion, 74, died June 3  and will today be laid to rest in his native Kentucky.

As it happened, Clark was at the Archives during my visit and we chatted briefly about his stirring montage of photos and memorabilia from Ali’s final bout. Yesterday, I reconnected with Clark, who turned 65 on the day Ali passed away.

Jim Clark shows samples of over 50 images in the Clark collection; three are signed by Ali. Photo: Anthony Clark
Jim Clark shows samples of over 50 images in the Clark collection; three are signed by Muhammad Ali. Photo: Anthony Clark

A 1969 graduate of Dartmouth High, the accomplished photojournalist said he “got the bug” after joining the school’s camera club. “We processed our film in the city jail,” he recalled, with a laugh.

A specialist in bio-medical photography, Clark also began shooting local prizefights where he met Trevor Berbick (1954-2006). The Jamaica-born boxer who fought out of Halifax would emerge as the last man to trade punches with Ali, winning a 10-round unanimous decision in Nassau, Bahamas, on December 11, 1981.

“Berbick asked me to shoot the fight and promised to cover my expenses,” Clark said. “But he reneged, so I effectively made the trip on my own dime. Talk about winging it.”

“A few days before the bout, I’d given some Canadian pins and souvenirs to the … public relations lady, who authorized a pass for me to get into the fight,” Clark continued. “Ali was on the downside of his career, so there weren’t hordes of photographers. The biggest star sitting ringside was John Travolta. Sugar Ray Leonard was supposed to attend but never showed up.”

Appreciative of her Canadian mementos, the marketing official waved Clark ahead of a line of photographers who were waiting at Ali’s dressing room trailer after the fight. Working with his Nikon FE2 camera, Clark shot a series of now landmark images of the boxer’s “last hurrah.”

A few years later when Rasheda Ali delivered a lecture at Dalhousie about her father’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, Clark presented her with a collage of photos and a poster from “The Drama in The Bahamas” (as the fight was dubbed). She then arranged for Ali to sign four of Clark’s photos, including an autographed print that raised about $1,300 for Parkinson’s research.

“I think a man from England bought the photo,” Clark said. “No matter where I go, I meet folks who’ve somehow been touched by Ali. He  connected with people in a profound way.”

For me, Ali’s 1967 refusal to enter the US Army and fight in the Vietnam war will forever reign as his most significant achievement. His principled stance cost him his heavyweight title, threatened him with jail, and, desperate to support his family, prompted him to participate in shaky projects such as the doomed Broadway musical Buck White.

Darrell Von Hurt
Darrell Von Hurt

I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of Ali’s decision until I grieved the young black men from my childhood who’d died in Vietnam. Among them, Darrell Von Hurt, 20, the vibrant brother of one of my best friends.

Two decades after Darrell perished in a helicopter crash, I slid my hands across his engraved name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. I remembered joking with him at backyard barbecues and the sadness of the Hurt family when I visited after Darrell’s death — his bedroom frozen in time, exactly as he’d left it when deployed for Vietnam.

In his acclaimed 1971 album What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye gave soulful voice to the plight of the disproportionate numbers of blacks who served in Vietnam, including his younger brother, Frankie Gaye. Bloods: An Oral History of Blacks in the Vietnam War by Wallace Terry warrants a much wider readership.

And history has yet to deliver a full account of the punishment exacted upon Eartha Kitt (1927-2008) who, in a fiery outburst, condemned the war during a 1968 luncheon at the White House.

In her 1998 article about the entertainer, former Globe and Mail reporter Jan Wong missed a golden chance to query Kitt (who shared a January 17 birth date with Ali) about his possible influence on her political activism.

The bodacious, beautiful and belligerent life of “The Greatest” has been documented in scores of articles, books, films, poems, photos, etc. The 1996 Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings (22 years in the making) has been rightly hailed as a knock-out. More work, including a future exhibition of Jim Clark’s photographs, is destined to come.

And in a gesture that speaks volumes about the racial divide that Ali battled in and outside of the  ring, the Louisville funeral home to which his remains have been entrusted boasts signage that promotes the mortuary as “multicultural.” The struggle continues.

The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance journalist in Halifax.

Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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