The prolific African American photographer Gordon Parks carved a special place for himself within Civil Rights Photography; rather than focusing his documentary lens on riotous and violent scenes, he shot color images of African American families engaging in their daily activities. Against the backdrop of mounting political and racial tension and violence, his 1956 series for his LIFE Magazine photo essay “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” catalogues the nuanced family lives of those oppressed by Jim Crow-era segregation.
His visual demand for justice resonated with LIFE readers because it appealed not to political sensibilities as much as it did to the universal emotions felt within American families. The moving tensions of the series occur when otherwise pleasant daily activities are transformed into unequal and humiliating experiences before our very eyes. Viewers are invited to a summer outing to an ice cream shop, only to realize the imposing signs: a small girl quenches her thirst from a “COLORED ONLY” fountain that stands starkly beside one that reads “WHITE ONLY.” A young black girl glances into a store window, only to meet the eyes of white mannequins.
Gordon Parks’s work helped to break the cycle of oppression, exposing the injustices of segregation in subtle and haunting ways. For years, much of the series was assumed to have been lost, but The Gordon Parks Foundation recently uncovered dozens of images previously unreleased in a small box marked “Segregation Series.” The images resonate even half a century after their creation, burning themselves into our brains long after we turn away. Take a look.
Thanks to 22 Words and The New York Times
Images via 22 Words
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