Gordon Parks: The Segregation Story

I was lucky yesterday to notice that an important exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art will conclude on June 21. I hopped in my truck and hurried over. So glad I did.


“Gordon Parks: A Segregation Story” is a collection of stunning color photographs reproduced from originals taken by Parks for a 1956 Life magazine story on the Jim Crow South, titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden.” As the museum website explains:


The photo essay … exposed Americans to the effects of racial segregation. Parks focused on the everyday activities of the related Thornton, Causey, and Tanner families in and near Mobile, Alabama, capturing their everyday struggles to overcome discrimination … Although the pictures associated with Parks’s work for the segregation story were believed lost for several decades, The Gordon Parks Foundation recently uncovered more than two hundred transparencies that comprise the full series. This exhibition brings together more than forty of those images, many on view for the first time. Together, they give a sense of the complexity and breadth of Parks’s vision and also provide a deeper look into the experience of segregation in the South.


More on the subject matter in a moment. But have a look at these amazing photographs (© 2015 The Gordon Parks Foundation):



Many of the photographs for the Life story were taken in Shady Grove, Alabama. The New York Times, in a story about a Gordon Parks Foundation gala at which Joanne Wilson (the woman standing with her niece under the neon “Colored Entrance” sign at a movie theater in Mobile) was honored, reports what happened to one of the families that participated:


Mrs. Wilson, who was not featured in the final photo essay, survived its publication relatively unscathed. Her sister and brother in-law, Allie Lee Causey and Willie Causey, were less fortunate. Mrs. Causey, a teacher in a ramshackle one-room schoolhouse in Shady Grove, Ala., was quoted in the piece as advocating integration as “the only way through which Negroes will receive justice.” One of the most outspoken members of the Thornton family, she helped to organize voter drives and teach community members the Bill of Rights, the recital of which from memory was a prerequisite for African-Americans to vote in many Southern states.


As Life later reported, Mrs. Causey’s candor and activism infuriated white supremacists, who taunted the couple about their participation in the photo essay. Service stations refused to sell gas to Mr. Causey, a woodcutter and farmer. He was soon accused of owing money on his truck, which was seized by alleged creditors. Without it, he was unable to work. Two weeks after the photo essay was published, Mrs. Causey was fired from her teaching job. Unable to make a living and fearing for their safety, the couple moved out of Alabama.


Mrs. Causey, who died in 2006, never taught again.


Life did a second story on the Causeys, which you can read here (starts on page 77). It includes this priceless quote from a Mrs. McPherson of Shady Grove, who owned two of the stations that, on her instructions, refused to sell gas to Willie Causey. She told the Life reporter, “It’s the burrheads like him that are causing us trouble. We ought to ship every one of them back to Africa. You’re going to have to change the pigment of their skin … and until you do that none of my grandchildren are going to school with them. The people up north think they’re going to cram it down our throats, but they’re not.”


As you may be able to imagine, I had many thoughts and feelings as I walked through this exhibit. One of them may surprise you a bit, because it has nothing to do with race: it was about family. I was genuinely struck by what more than a half decade of change in our society has wrought, what with all the atomizing forces at work that have made every institution, including the family, increasingly suspect or irrelevant. Just look at this Pew Research Center chart from 2012:





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