Segregation in the South, 1956 - Photography Archive - The Gordon Parks Foundation

Willie Causey and Family, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956

In the wake of the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Life asked Parks to go to Alabama and document the racial tensions entrenched there. He would compare his findings with his own troubled childhood in Fort Scott, Kansas, and with the relatively progressive and integrated life he had enjoyed in Europe.

Arriving in Mobile in the summer of 1956, Parks was met by two men: Sam Yette, a young Black reporter who had grown up there and was now attending a northern college, and the white chief of one of Life’s southern bureaus. In his memoirs and interviews, Parks magnanimously refers to this man simply as “Freddie,” in order to conceal his real identity. Revealing it, Parks feared, might have resulted in violence against both Freddie and his family.

The assignment encountered challenges from the outset. Freddie, who was supposed to as act as handler for Parks and Yette as they searched for their story, seemed to have his own agenda. He told Parks that there was not enough segregation in Alabama to merit a Life story. Then he gave Parks and Yette the name of a man who was to protect them in case of trouble. When the two discovered that this intended bodyguard was the head of the local White Citizens’ Council, “a group as distinguished for their hatred of Blacks as the Ku Klux Klan” (To Smile in Autumn, 1979), they quickly left via back roads. After reconvening with Freddie, who admitted his “error,” Parks began to make progress. He soon identified one of the major subjects of the photo essay: Willie Causey, a husband and the father of five who pieced together a meager livelihood cutting wood and sharecropping. For a Black family in Alabama, the Causeys had reached a certain level of financial success, exemplified by a secondhand refrigerator and the Chevrolet sedan that Willie and his wife, Allie, an elementary school teacher, had slowly saved enough money to buy.

Segregation in the South, 1956 - Photography Archive - The Gordon Parks Foundation

Airline Terminal, Atlanta, Georgia, 1956

Over the course of several weeks, Parks and Yette photographed the family at home and at work; at night, the two men slept on the Causeys’ front porch. They also visited Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton, Allie Causey’s parents, and Parks was able to assemble 18 members of the family, representing four generations, for a photograph in front of their homestead.

As the project was drawing to a close, the New York Life office contacted Parks to ask for documentation of “separate but equal” facilities, the most visually divisive result of the Jim Crow laws. Parks captured this brand of discrimination through the eyes of the oldest Thornton son, E.J., a professor at Fisk University, as he and his family stood in the colored waiting room of a bus terminal in Nashville. (Parks experienced such segregation himself in more treacherous circumstances, however, when he and Yette took the train from Birmingham to Nashville. With the threat of tarring and feathering, even lynching, in the air, Yette drank from a whites-only water fountain in the Birmingham station, a provocation that later resulted in a physical assault on the train, from which the two men narrowly escaped.)

After the story on the Causeys appeared in the September 24, 1956 issue of Life, the family suffered cruel treatment. They were stripped of their possessions and chased out of their home. Parks made sure that the magazine provided them with the support they needed to get back on their feet (support that Freddie had promised and then neglected to provide).

In his memoirs, Parks looked back with a dispassionate scorn on Freddie; the man, Parks said, represented people who “appear harmless, and in brotherly manner . . . walk beside me—hiding a dagger in their hand” (Voices in the Mirror, 1990).