The racial tensions and inequities that still simmer in American life were encoded in law and custom 60 years ago when Life magazine sent black photographer Gordon Parks to Alabama. His assignment: Show what segregation meant in the lives of black families.
Such a trip may seem routine now, when most Americans can safely go anywhere in the nation. But that was not true for a black guy then. Parks risked his life to do his job, and Life knew the dangers he faced.
This week Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis opens a new show of Parks’ photos from Alabama, along with classic black-and-white pictures from his 1952 “Invisible Man” series, marking the publication of his friend Ralph Ellison’s famous novel of that title. With quiet dignity, the photos bear witness to a troubled and troubling time in American history when good, hardworking people lived in Third World poverty and faced latent violence simply because they were “colored.” The show opens Friday and runs through May 14.
Documenting segregation in 1950s Alabama, which Parks called “the motherland of racism,” was akin to photographing urban warfare today. The dangers were masked by the superficial normalcy of daily life, and internalized through codes of “safe” behavior.
To remain inconspicuous, Parks used a camera small enough to slip into his pocket. Life magazine hired a local guy, Sam Yette, to guide him — much as American news organizations now hire Iraqis or Syrians to assist reporters covering conflicts in the Middle East.
In 1956 Parks, who later won fame as a filmmaker (“Shaft,” “The Learning Tree”), was an acclaimed photographer accustomed to moving easily in cosmopolitan Washington, D.C., where he’d perfected his trade, and New York, where he lived.
But he hadn’t forgotten the race rules he learned as a kid growing up in Fort Scott, Kan. — never look a white man in the eye unless you want trouble. Always defer, step aside, be polite, stay invisible. All that came in handy in the Deep South.
For the magazine, Parks documented the world of Albert Thornton, 82, his illiterate wife and some of their nine children and 19 grandchildren. He worked in Mobile and in rural areas including Shady Grove, a “95 percent Negro town,” as Life described it. There, a dilapidated shack with no plumbing served as a school for 120 elementary kids. One teacher, Thornton’s daughter Allie Lee Causey, washed her family’s clothes in an iron pot heated by a log fire in her backyard.
Thornton was a small-time farmer whose father had been a slave. In his youth segregation was not yet the law so there were no signs dividing his world into “white” and “colored” places. That didn’t happen until after 1896, when the U.S. Supreme Court approved “separate but equal” facilities in its Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling. By then, Thornton was 22, old enough to remember.
His own children achieved much by the standards of the day, becoming among them a mechanic, a farmer, a teacher and a college professor. But, as the Life story documented, all of their lives were circumscribed by grinding poverty and institutionalized racism.
Life published some of Parks’ photos in 1956, after which his color transparencies were largely forgotten. They were unearthed by the Gordon Parks Foundation, which provided pictures for the Weinstein show and for “Segregation Story,” a low-key but powerful book recently published in collaboration with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.
A colored world
Parks’ pictures are respectful, occasionally intimate, but often taken from a distance — across a street, through a car window, half blocked by a passerby.
From across a parking lot, he pictures a black family waiting under the “Colored” sign at an ice cream stand, children queuing for water at a “Colored Only” fountain. He shows a slender young mother in a lacy frock and heels with her daughter in a party dress beneath the neon-lit “Colored Entrance” to a downtown movie theater. And a gaggle of black kids behind a chain-link fence watching white kids frolic in a manicured playground they can only dream of entering.
Other times Parks steps back to take in the whole picture of entrenched poverty — stained and peeling wallpaper, muddy streets, unpainted houses sagging into muck, the cloudy sky above a man walking behind a plow pulled by a mule.
As the Life story made clear, poverty was not exclusively a black issue, but there was a difference in the prospects of whites.
“In the matter of housing many white Southerners are as badly off as the Negroes, but have one great advantage: if they can, they may move wherever they please,” Life correspondent Robert Wallace wrote in the text accompanying Parks’ photos. “Negroes may move only to another segregated neighborhood.”
Even Thornton’s son E.J., who earned a master’s degree from University of Massachusetts and chaired a department at the (all-black) Tennessee State University in Nashville, was consigned to a bus station’s “Colored Waiting Room” with his stylishly dressed family. Despite his education and accomplishments, Thornton could not socialize with his white peers.
‘Southland is afire’
A covert quality seeped into many of Parks’ photos. He and his guide were regularly followed and threatened by white men muttering racist epithets.
They had to be cautious for the safety of their subjects, too. After the photos were published, Thornton’s schoolteacher daughter was fired and her husband’s truck was confiscated by bogus creditors. Life sent two editors to try to set things right. They were met by men with shotguns and threatened by the town’s mayor. Seeing the family at risk, Life gave them $25,000 and the family left Alabama for good.
Neither the story nor the photos changed things in the South, but they brought white America’s attention to the dignity, hard work and aspirations of people who were just like them, except for the color of their skin. Sixty years later, the photos are a searing reminder of the poverty and despair a nation can impose on its people by law and willful neglect.
Parks recorded his own terror in his diary: “Just a few miles down the road Klansmen are burning and shooting blacks and bombing their churches. Southland is afire, and lying here in the dark, hunted, I feel death crawling the dusty roads. The silence is spattered with fear.”
As soon as his job was done, Parks fled.
“After reaching Birmingham at dawn I took the first plane to New York,” he wrote. “Not until it roared upward did I breathe easily.”