High Museum Exhibit Reveals the Segregated South

Gordon Parks' photos depict life with Jim Crow.

  • The exhibit spotlights social injustice.
    The exhibit spotlights social injustice.
  • The camera was Gordon Parks’ weapon of choice.
    The camera was Gordon Parks’ weapon of choice.
  • Color film makes the photos feel contemporary.
    Color film makes the photos feel contemporary.
  • The photographer and his subjects were under substantial risks.
    The photographer and his subjects were under substantial risks.
  • LIFE Magazine hired a bodyguard for Gordon Parks.
    LIFE Magazine hired a bodyguard for Gordon Parks.

Nearly 60 years ago, a LIFE Magazine staff photographer captured the faces of U.S. citizens being forced to abide by the South’s Jim Crow laws. These photos now are integrated into “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” a poignant photographic exhibit showing at the High Museum of Art through June.

A few steps into the exhibit, haunting faces stare back at visitors telling a silent story of segregation in Mobile, Ala., where persons of color were told where to sit and where to enter buildings and even which water fountain to use. Through Gordon Parks, (1912-2006), who later became a world-renowned photojournalist, director, musician and writer, the everyday struggles and humiliation of an African-American family come to play as they attempt to live ordinary lives while overcoming fear and discrimination.  

The visual impact of children playing along a dirt road in front of dilapidated clapboard houses is a stark contrast to the economic boom most of America was experiencing in the 1950s’ postwar era. Segregation left many without the opportunity to succeed. Parks, who grew up in poverty himself and became one of the first nationally acclaimed African-American photographers in our country, focused his essay on the day-to-day reality of the human experience in dealing with racial inequality by showing ordinary routines, such as getting dressed up to attend church, cooking dinner and even getting a haircut. When Parks’ essay was published in LIFE in 1956, it unwrapped the truth behind the Jim Crow laws to many in the country who either were unaware of the laws' impact or who chose not to pay attention to the injustices.

By 1956, the early efforts of the civil rights movement were coming to light with instances of civil resistance such as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Yet, Parks sought to spotlight the social injustice. He said at the time, "I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty."

In this collection, the viewer clearly sees the impact on the family’s pride. From a farmer pushing his own plow without the help of an animal to a college professor whose family was forced to sit in the colored section of a train, the damaging effects on the economic well-being and self respect of the subjects is clear by looking into their faces. Most poignant are some of the photos of family members looking into a white world that is closed off to them. One example is the photo of  a mother and daughter staring into a store display window filled with white-skinned mannequins wearing fancy children’s clothing. 

Parks also emphasized the contrast of this racially divided world by using the visual accents created by color film at a time black and white film was standard for imagery. Most of the photographs from the civil rights era are in black and white so this is exhibit is especially poignant because it feels contemporary.

Parks faced substantial risk during his assignment in Alabama, as did the family he photographed in his essay. He wrote in his diary of the terror he felt: "My thoughts swirl around the tragedies that brought me here. Just a few miles down the road, Klansmen are burning and shooting blacks and bombing their churches. . . .Lying here in the dark, hunted, I feel death crawling the dusty roads."

Because Parks feared for his own life at times as he photographed the story, LIFE hired a bodyguard for him. In addition, once the essay was published, family members faced the threat of violence. One woman featured soon lost her job as a school teacher, and her family was threatened. LIFE paid to relocate her family out of Alabama.

Parks’ photos were lost for several decades, but were recently discovered. This exhibition brings together more than 40 images, many on view for the first time.

This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation.

Patti Solomon is a guest blogger for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. 

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