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Some of the most memorable depictions of racial strife in America, whether captured in photograph or on film, have come by way of Gordon Parks. Parks, the first African American photojournalist for Vogue and Life magazines and Hollywood’s first major black director, died in March at the age of 93.
The celebrated photographer and filmmaker, whose credits include the films The Learning Tree and the ’70s classic Shaft, was born Nov. 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas. He was the youngest of 15 children. Parks rose above a life of poverty and racism to become one of the country’s most versatile artists.
“When blacks were excluded from producing and directing Hollywood films, Parks opened the door of opportunity,” says Howard Dodson, head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. “His drive for excellence in everything he did compelled him to enter worlds previously denied to blacks and set a stellar example.”
As a photojournalist for Life magazine for more than 20 years, Parks gained national acclaim for his intimate portrayals of Harlem gang warfare, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, who sat down with Parks in a 1998 interview, remembers him as a “hero to me and to many black journalists. He was truly a renaissance man who did everything.” Monroe adds that Parks “would want to make sure that young journalists and other young artists pick up where he left off.”