In 1956, in the wake of the Montgomery bus boycotts, Life magazine commissioned its first black staff photographer, Gordon Parks, to document segregation in Alabama. Parks, who died in 2006, photographed the lives of one elderly black couple, the Thorntons, along with their nine children and 19 grandchildren in the brutally segregated outskirts of Mobile.
Twenty-six of Parks’s photographs were originally published in a September 1956 Life article, called “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” The rest of the images were long presumed lost, until 2012, when the Gordon Parks Foundation found 200 negatives at the bottom of a storage box. Now, the entire series is published for the first time in Gordon Parks: Segregation Story.
Sixty years after they were taken, these photos are as relevant as ever, providing visceral context for America’s reignited race war. They depict in full color the historical precedents for the “new Jim Crow” and the controversies surrounding the shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Even if younger generations think they know what segregation was like, these photos tell a uniquely intimate story of how it impacted real people’s daily lives, something that’s rarely taught effectively in high school history classes.
The Life assignment was risky for Parks, who was routinely followed and harassed by white supremacists, but he had vowed to use his camera “effectively against intolerance.” The project was even riskier for the Thorntons–“Just a few miles down the road Klansmen are burning and shooting blacks and bombing their churches,” Parks wrote to his editors–but his subjects refused to be intimidated. As Michael Wilson, the Thorntons’ grandson and the family historian, says in the book’s introduction: “My family saw the photo essay as an opportunity to advance the cause of civil rights. These pictures were going to be published in a national magazine. People across the country would clearly see the problem. They could see our plight. Maybe then we could get help.” Decades later, that same sentiment was sadly echoed when photojournalists risked their safety covering the Ferguson riots.
See the slideshow above for more about Parks’s photographs.
Gordon Parks: Segregation Story is available for $30 here.