Revisiting Gordon Parks’s “Segregation Story” 60 Years Later

April 22, 2015   •   By Lilly Lampe

At the center of the storm over segregation stand the 10 million Negroes of the South. Since 1865 the Negro has seen his lot improve, then worsen, then in recent years grow slightly better again. But he is still surrounded by restraints.

— Robert Wallace, “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” for LIFE magazine, September 1956


GORDON PARKS — a black man living in New York City — spent a harrowing two weeks on assignment in Alabama during which he was threatened and chased by a white supremacist group. He and his images escaped, and when the 12-page photo essay was published in the September 1956 issue of LIFE magazine with Robert Wallace’s article “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” LIFE’s readers were given a new look at the civil rights movement. Rather than black-and-white images of protest marches and violent clashes, Parks showed a black family in the Jim Crow South in living color. Almost 60 years later, those images, called “Segregation Story,” are on view again, alongside previously unpublished photographs from the assignment. The reason for exhuming the lost photographs is ambiguous, however, and the exhibition ends up raising more questions about the efficacy of photojournalism than it answers.

The subject of the “Segregation Story” was the extended family of a poor black couple, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton Sr. The 26 images in the original series show the family engaged in the rhythms of daily life: doing chores at home, taking trips to town, gathering at church. The mundane nature of these activities was crucial, as it allowed viewers to identify with the Thorntons. They were honest, churchgoing people living ordinary lives; the only difference was their race — and their poverty. The family washed their clothes outside in tubs; the children attended a black-only school, which, as evidenced in Parks’s photographs, was small and sparsely furnished. One photograph shows six black children standing with their backs to the camera, their hands clinging to the chain-link fence that separates them from the whites-only playground. These moving images were an emotional appeal to a nation still grappling with “separate but equal” — a visual argument against the oppressive nature of segregation. But what of the images that were never published?

It’s to be assumed with any photography series that for every image published there are several left on the cutting-room floor. A combination of decisions is made — by photographer, magazine editors, and so on — that result in the material that eventually goes to print. The ersatz images don’t often reemerge, unless they were taken by someone like Gordon Parks. “Segregation Story” was not Parks’s most famous work, even at the time of its publication. By 1956, Parks had already broken several barriers for black men. He was the first black staff photographer at LIFE and one of the first black fashion photographers for magazines like Vogue. In the decades following “Segregation Story,” Parks continued to break racial barriers. He became the first black Hollywood director with The Learning Tree in 1969, and as a photographer, he continued to pursue the subject of inequality through careful portraits of those adversely affected. As a journalist, Parks’s life and work were crucially connected to the social shifts in America during the last century, and as such, an allure of history clings to his archives.



Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.


Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.


In the spring of 2012, six years after Parks’s death, a box labeled “Segregation Series” was found in the storage room of the Gordon Parks Foundation that contained more than 200 color transparencies. A selection of 30 of the rediscovered images is now the subject of an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which pairs them with 10 of those originally published. In the past few years several museums have mounted exhibitions of Parks’s work emphasizing the unpublished, be it whole photographs or aspects of the editing process. The New Orleans Museum of Art organized an exhibition titled “Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument,” which explored the editorial process behind his first photographic essay for LIFE, “Harlem Gang Leader,” which showed the fears and frustrations of teenage gang members. That exhibition featured several images that were cropped and tinted darker, all decisions meant to emphasize a certain mood or message. At the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, photographs from an unpublished LIFE magazine assignment reveal a story close to home for Parks. In 1950, Parks returned to his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas, to find his classmates from his all-black middle school, only to learn that, like him, most of them had moved out of the segregated town. The “Fort Scott, Kansas” assignment was a bittersweet reunion. A few classmates were doing quite well while others still had hard lives; all had struggled. The images are a testament to the lasting effects of segregation as well as the participation of Parks’s peers in the Great Migration. For Parks himself, they offered a window into what his life could have been, and emphasized how far he had come.

The rediscovered “Segregation Story” images are more ambiguous. The original set includes beatific scenes of children playing, men toiling in the field or tending cattle, and women dressed in their best clothes to go to town. The newly added photographs expand the depiction of the Thorntons’ lives, but in minor ways. The unseen images are primarily portraits of the Thorntons’ adult children and grandchildren. They show youths caught in moments of repose, and young women tending to younger siblings or their own offspring. The portraits are classic Parks; they are sympathetic but not simpering, and aim to emphasize the subjects’ humanity rather than shallowly flatter. But other than participating in the continued interest in Parks’s work, the motivations of the introduction of these images are unclear.

The exhibition narrative says little about why the photographs are being shown, beyond a minor evolution from rediscovery to presentation. We found these photographs: let’s show them. Certainly they trade in the idea that every work by a great artist is worth attention, and as images themselves they certainly are as lovely and moving as many Parks took. And as rejects from a photojournalistic series, they reveal the many stories that LIFE could have told of Parks’s weeks in Alabama. A focus on the unpublished portraits of the Thornton family would have emphasized the individuals more, but possibly lessened their archetypal appeal. The exhibition also includes images from Parks’s travels to and from Alabama, which, if published in the LIFE article, could have told a story of the photographer’s journey through the South and the harassment that he faced there.

If anything, the additional images emphasize the brilliance of LIFE’s photo editors. The series that was published placed the family in visible aspects of their Southern setting: drinking from a colored-only water fountain; standing outside clothing stores looking in; living in overcrowded, substandard housing. In these images, signs of the Jim Crow South become as prominent a subject as the Thorntons themselves; the visual cues of the Thorntons’ oppression were necessarily as big a part of the story as they were in the lives of the family. Of course, the 30 new images are just a fraction of those discovered; the other 170-plus could likely conjure an array of possible stories. There’s no hint in the book or exhibition, however, of the impetus behind the new edit.

The essays in the volume accompanying the exhibition present various arguments for the strength of LIFE’s “Segregation Story.” Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia in Athens and a friend of Parks’s, takes a personal approach, describing her experience of segregation in Atlanta and Athens during her teenage years. Her essay provides a glimpse into black life in Southern cities during this period. Hunter-Gault recalls climbing the long flight of stairs to the colored seating in Atlanta’s Fox Theatre, and the strong support she felt from her community, who gave her access to education and instilled a sense of pride despite the obvious signs of segregation. She shares the smells and tastes of the rural life, the delicious pig ears boiled for sandwiches by her cousins, and the excruciating drive back to Atlanta after a visit when they were hours away from colored restrooms. Her moving testimony includes a nod to the communicative power of images, as she remembers the nightmares brought on by pictures of Emmett Till in Jet magazine.


Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Department Store, Mobile, Alabama, 1956,
courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.


Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Willie Causey, Jr., with Gun During Violence in Alabama, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.


In his essay, Maurice Berger, a curator and blogger for The New York Times who has contributed to several publications on the photographer, expands on the history of “Segregation Story” and tackles the problems of assessing the power of images. Berger details the biographies of Parks and the Thorntons, as well as the backlash they experienced following “The Restraints” publication. Members of the family were harassed, lost their jobs, and, fearing for their safety, moved out of Alabama. There are definitive ways in which the Thorntons descendants were affected by their participation in the story; however, the impact of the images on a national audience is more tenuous, a position Berger seems to hold as well.

Berger lauds the impact of Parks’s images in terms of “neutralizing stereotypes” — versus images that offer a “fragmentary or distorted view of black life” — but he questions the efficacy of empathy in altering racial attitudes. He mentions several times Parks’s own belief in the empathetic power of images to undo prejudice, and describes the potential of photography to neutralize stereotypes — by literally offering a different viewpoint — but casts doubt on the interpretation of these images as empathetic tools. Berger mentions recent debates for and against the political efficacy of empathy, but shies away from offering a definitive stance. He suggests Parks’s ventures into other art forms — film, literature, and so on — were due to an awareness of the limitations of photography as a communicative tool. Yet this suggestion ignores Parks’s statements regarding photography as his “weapon of choice,” a quote Berger often revisits in his posts for The New York Times’s “Lens” blog.

Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.


Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Untitled, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956, courtesy of and copyright The Gordon Parks Foundation.


Berger cites Parks’s phrase in a “Lens” post from last August titled “In Ferguson, Photographs as Powerful Agents.” He discusses the flood of images by residents of Ferguson that testified to the raging chaos at a faster pace than mainstream media, and with a viewpoint more accurate to the experience and emotions felt by those present. Berger connects the use of photography by Ferguson residents to Gordon Parks’s work and the images of Emmett Till, and argues, effectively, that these images provide a powerful alternative to the mainstream media’s portrayal. But inevitably it’s a case of images against images, raising a question of how far photography can reach. As Berger writes in Segregation Story, photography can neutralize stereotypes, as the latter “offers nothing more than a partial, fragmentary, or distorted view of black life.” But, taking the inverse of these arguments, photographs — brief, fragmentary glimpses; scenes frozen in time — appear to be a successful tool only against other photographs or things even more incomplete, like stereotypes. Without even getting into debates regarding the manipulation of images in today’s digital age, photography is presented as a limited tool.

Yet nothing could be less true. To see Gordon Parks’s images from “Segregation Story” today is to be left emotionally bereft, to gasp at the facts of an all-too-recent history, to shudder at how far we have not come. Almost 60 years later, Parks’s photographs are still undeniably powerful, but they’ve also taken on new roles as time has passed. No longer are they merely a window into the current lives of strangers, but in addition exist as a testament to multiple histories: those of the many blacks who experienced segregation, those of the family selected to represent that suffering, and that of the photographer who shared that experience for a few weeks. They’re a historical document, a continued advocate for civil rights in a still-uncertain era, a breaching of time and person to convey an emotional intimacy that feels no less relevant today. Perhaps where champions of this work stumble — myself included — is in the easy ascription of empathy as the apex of photography’s communicative worth, or by not making clear how expansive this empathy is because of all the other tools at photography’s disposal. Even if empathy is all they offer, it’s a powerful version, capable of extending across decades. If anything, the power of the original “Segregation Story” has only grown with time, illustrating the ability photographs have to evolve and expand in their meaning. The impact of Gordon Parks’s photographs is as vital today as ever, in some ways more so. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of photography as an alternative — media, art form, record — and consider it as a mutable, expansive expression in itself.


Lilly Lampe is a writer based in Atlanta, Georgia.