Lisa Volpe x Cedric Johnson - Art x Activism - The Gordon Parks Foundation

Lisa Volpe, MFAH associate curator of photography, and Cedric Johnson, professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago discuss Gordon Parks's 1966/67 series on civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition Gordon Parks: Stokely Carmichael and Black Power, on view at the he Museum of Fine Arts, Houston October 16, 2022–January 16, 2023.

In May 1967, Life magazine published Gordon Parks’s groundbreaking images and profile of Stokely Carmichael, the young and controversial civil-rights leader who, as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Com­mittee, issued the call for Black Power in a speech in Mississippi in June 1966, eliciting national headlines, and media backlash. On the road with Carmichael and the SNCC that fall and into the spring of the following year, Parks took more than 700 photographs as Carmichael addressed Vietnam War protesters outside the U.N. building in New York, with Martin Luther King, Jr.; spoke with supporters in a Los Angeles living room; went door to door in Alabama registering Blacks to vote; and officiated at his sister’s wedding in the Bronx. In his finely drawn sketch of a charismatic leader and his movement, Parks, then the only Black staff member at Life, reveals his own advo­cacy of Black Power and its message of self-determination.

Parks met Stokely Carmichael (later, Kwame Ture) in September 1966, as Carmichael’s rallying cry for “Black Power” was grabbing national attention. As chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Carmichael was the figure most identified with the call for Black Power, and was routinely depicted as a representative of anger and separatism. But Parks’s text and photo essay for Life, “Whip of Black Power,” conveyed the nuanced range of Carmichael as a person—not only his anger at America’s deeply rooted racism, but his self-effacing humor, his private moments with family and his own feelings of dismay that the justice he and the movement sought would not be attained in his lifetime – all part of a “truth,” as Parks described, “the kind that comes through looking and listening.”

Lisa Volpe is associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She earned her master’s degree at Case Western Reserve University and her PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before arriving in Houston, she was the curator of the Wichita Art Museum, where she oversaw all areas of the museum’s collection. In addition, she has held various curatorial roles at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and fellowships at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Cedric Johnson is professor of Black studies and political science at the University of Illinois Chicago. His teaching and research interests include African American political thought, neoliberal politics, and class analysis and race. His book Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) was named the 2008 W. E. B. Du Bois Outstanding Book of the Year by the National Conference of Black Political Scientists. Johnson is the editor of The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). His writings have appeared in Labor Studies Journal, Catalyst, Dissent, Nonsite, Jacobin, New Labor Forum, Perspectives on Politics, and Historical Materialism. In 2008, Johnson was named the Jon Garlock Labor Educator of the Year by the Rochester, New York, Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.