His Eyes Saw the Prize Early
Flip Schulke Framed Civil Rights Era's Glory Days, Horrors

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

During his long career as a photographer, Flip Schulke covered wars, presidents, rocket launches and the great human drama of the civil rights movement in the American South. But people always asked about one picture in particular: Muhammad Ali standing underwater.

How did he manage to take this remarkable image of the young Ali, sleek and young and powerful, with his fists cocked and eyes wide open, on the bottom of a swimming pool?

The picture was taken in August 1961, when Ali was a young, relatively unknown boxer in Miami named Cassius Clay. Strangely, Life magazine didn't include the image with other photos of Ali in the pool, but in recent years it's become something of a symbol of the ever-buoyant Ali and his seemingly magical powers.

It also shows Graeme Phelps Schulke -- Flip to everyone he knew -- was always a step ahead of everyone else when it came to getting the right picture.

Flip died Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla., at 77, and if you don't know his name, you know the pictures that came from his camera. For years, he was a freelance photographer for Life and Look magazines, when they were on everyone's coffee tables, and he went all over the world on assignment for Sports Illustrated, National Geographic and magazines from Europe.

He made his name as a chronicler of racial turmoil in the South and the life of his friend Martin Luther King Jr. He photographed famous figures wherever he found them, from Elvis Presley during a stage rehearsal, to Fidel Castro giving his first speech in Havana in 1959. He won every prize in journalism except the Pulitzer, only because he never worked for a newspaper, and was a pioneer of underwater photography. He invented underwater lenses and learned his lighting techniques from none other than Jacques Cousteau.

In 1961, when he met the young Ali at a hotel in Miami, Ali mentioned that he trained in a pool because the water resistance improved his punching power. Flip, excited to shoot underwater, put on his scuba gear and shot some photos of Ali in action.

More than two years later, Flip returned for another photo shoot with Ali. They leafed through the Life magazine with underwater shots, and Ali started to chuckle.

"I really got you with that one," he said.

It turns out that Ali didn't know how to swim and had never spent a day training in a pool.

"It was all something he dreamed up because he knew I was into underwater photography," Flip told me years later. "Imagine that, to have that presence of mind when he was only 19 years old! He really had me."

Flip loved to laugh, especially about himself, but he could also be cranky, opinionated, sometimes hard to deal with -- he was married and divorced four times, after all. But he was never less than an inspiration to journalists.

When I first met him in the mid-1990s, he was living west of Miami in a house that barely survived Hurricane Andrew in 1992. The roof was ripped off, and he lost cameras and other equipment in the storm. But his archives -- his life's work of some 600,000 photographs that constituted a visual record of our time -- were saved.

He may have been the best of the courageous photographers, both black and white ones, who drove deep into the dark night of the South to portray the civil rights movement in all its glory and horror.

At the June 1963 funeral in Mississippi of martyred leader Medgar Evers, Flip was kneeling beside the coffin when he looked up and caught a single tear streaming down the cheek of Evers's widow, Myrlie.

On Aug. 28, 1963, Flip squeezed through the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial to find the perfect angle for capturing King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Almost five years later, when King was assassinated, Flip asked to cover the funeral for Life. The editors turned him down, but Flip flew to Atlanta anyway. When he called the editors back from inside the King family home, he got the assignment. His photo of the veiled, beatifically stoic Coretta Scott King at her husband's funeral made the magazine's cover. The National Press Photographers Association named it one of the 12 best journalistic photographs of the second half of the 20th century.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Flip was the first photographer to enter the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. He went up to the sixth floor and found the open window through which Lee Harvey Oswald had shot President John F. Kennedy.

His photograph of the wooden crates that Oswald stacked by the window, with a clear view of Dealey Plaza, is still painful to look at. Traces of oil from Oswald's rifle are visible on the top crate. Typical of Flip, he never forgot a chilling, almost pathetic detail: Next to the stacked boxes was a greasy paper bag that contained Oswald's half-eaten lunch of fried chicken.

Years later, when I collaborated with him on two books, I could see that his early fire hadn't dimmed. Tears welled in his eyes when he spoke of his friendship with King, whom he called "Doc."

Flip was from Minnesota and grew up in relative privilege, with houses in New Hampshire and Palm Beach. He adored his mother, who was Jewish and deaf, but despised his father, who was an alcoholic, anti-Semitic bully. One night when Flip was 15, he pulled a wad of cash from his father's pocket and took a train to his grandmother's house in New Ulm, Minn., never to return to his old life.

When his grandmother died, Flip moved into a furnace room and began to take pictures of high school events to earn money. As a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, he won a national photography contest and, even more important, studied with a Catholic monk who instilled a desire to take action to make the world a better place.

By 1954, Flip had settled in Miami, where the steamy cultural blend of the South, the Caribbean and New York glamour offered a perfect opportunity for a young freelance photographer. He refused job offers from Life and National Geographic, preferring to work for himself -- and to retain ownership of the photographs that later became a steady and remunerative source of income.

Flip was proudest of his work chronicling the civil rights movement, which often put his life in danger. He loved to drive and once told me that he always rented Cadillacs in the South because, with their big engines, he could usually outrun anyone chasing him. He was tear-gassed at the University of Mississippi in 1962, when federal troops tried to escort James Meredith onto campus as the university's first black student. Crouching behind a bush, Flip shouted at a French photographer to get down. Moments later, the Frenchman was killed by a sniper.

When I interviewed Flip for our book "Muhammad Ali: The Birth of a Legend, Miami, 1961-1964" (2000), he told me about taking Ali to buy clothes at a department store in downtown Miami. But Miami was as segregated as any city in Dixie in those days, and the store managers would not allow him to try anything on.

"But this gentleman won an Olympic gold medal!" Flip pleaded, to no avail.

He ended up taking Ali to Overtown, Miami's African American district, and outfitted him on Sports Illustrated's dime. Flip never masked his feelings, and 40 years later he was still furious at the injustice.

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