Kansas native son Gordon Parks educated a nation on the horrors of bigotry and prejudice during the civil rights movement. In celebration of the anniversary of his birth, 100 years ago in Fort Scott, Wichita State University and its Ulrich Museum of Art are displaying his photographs and launching a series of events about his work.
The Ulrich gathered 12 of Parks’ photographs from its collection and borrowed almost three dozen civil rights photographs from The Menil Collection in Houston. Together, they showcase triumphs and pitfalls of human nature.
“This is a very moving exhibit,” said Patricia McDonnell, former Ulrich director. “It shows the cultural status quo and some of the awful things that happened.”
The exhibit demonstrates resiliency and determination in the face of challenge. It also pays tribute to the talent of Parks and other photographers.
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“He (Parks) was a leader in telling the civil rights story,” said Ted Ayers, WSU vice president and general counsel. “It wasn’t easy for these photographers to tell their story, but it was absolutely crucial that a record be kept.”
These photographs provide us with a history of an era — a glimpse into the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington and the Selma-to-Montgomery march. They show us the beauty of character in the face of difficulty.
“He (Parks) did face discrimination back in Kansas, and rather than becoming bitter, he learned from it and was determined to succeed,” Ayers said. “He was always looking for the well-being of people. He broke so many barriers.”
WSU also houses a collection of Parks’ papers, manuscripts, correspondence and photos in its special archives. The university, along with the museum, will present speakers and films that go along with this exhibition and complement the archives.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, John W. Franklin, a director at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, will speak about how the museum plans to spotlight historical figures, including Parks.
At 6 p.m. Oct. 25, Deborah Willis, chairwoman of New York University’s department of photography, will talk about Parks’ groundbreaking use of portrait photography.
Both of those programs are free and will be at the WSU Campus Activities Center Theater.
“He introduced new ways of photographing his subjects,” Willis said. “He says that in order to capture someone’s essence, he has to interview them and spend time with them.”
This technique made Parks’ pictures three dimensional, she said.
At 6 p.m. Nov. 15 at 210 McKnight West in the School of Art and Design, Willis’ son, Hank Willis Thomas, a noted visual artist, will examine race and class in a historical context during a free event.
“He’s looking at culture today in terms of critiquing the media,” Willis said.
Parks’ third wife, Genevieve Young, will offer another free conversation. The former senior editor of Little, Brown & Co. will speak about the effect of Parks’ work. This event — at 6 p.m. Nov. 29 at the Campus Activities Center Theater — will conclude with a release party for the five-volume book “Gordon Parks: Collected Works.”
Parks was not only known as a photographer, but as a poet, filmmaker, composer, author and director.
His film “Martin: A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” will be shown during a free screening Nov. 16 at 210 McKnight West in the School of Art and Design. It’ll coincide with the WSU College of Fine Arts’ Kansas Dance Festival. Parks composed the musical score for the ballet in the film, which highlights monumental moments in King’s life.
Ayers, who was there when Parks first came to speak at WSU and when there was talk about bringing Parks’ collection to the university, continues to promote Parks’ legacy.
“He was raised with Kansas values,” Ayers said. “He demonstrates what you can do when you make the right choices and how you can succeed. His story is one of perseverance and one of talent.”