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