Many of the images come from Parks’s 1963 series “Black Muslims,” which he was commissioned to photograph by Life magazine (he worked there from 1948 to 1972). Parks was asked to cover the Black Muslim movement, including leaders like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, after several white colleagues were turned away in their quest to gain access.
One untitled 1963 image shows a Black man in Harlem holding a sign of protest, wearing a somber expression. The message on his sign, in bold black lettering, reads: “We are living in a police state.” Another depicts a small group standing at a protest in California in 1967 wearing Malcolm X sweatshirts. A young woman in the foreground has her head thrown back, as she shouts with pride and joy. The photographs feel retro yet contemporary, all at once.
I recently spoke with photography historian Dr. Deborah Willis, who sits on the Gordon Parks Foundation’s board of directors, about the resonance of Parks’s images, and what they might reveal about the history of our nation. Currently a professor and chair of the department of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Dr. Willis has revolutionized the scholarship around Black photography. She spoke to the disheartening reality of these patterns, but also to the transformative power of protest images.