Slate: 11th Hour #296 Gordon Parks 1/15/90
Host Robert Lipsyte, unseen, announces the story for tonight's program, Gordon Parks, African American multi-talented Photographer, Filmmaker, Composer, Writer. A montage of B&W photo stills of Parks are shown along with the sound of a snapping camera after each one.
Charitable Funding for the program by announcer and overlay the Eleventh Hour graphic
Eleventh Hour show opener
Host Robert Lipsyte talking about a tribute ballet to Martin Luther King by Gordon Parks called, "Martin" which appeared on PBS, January 15, 1990.
Host Lipsyte welcomes viewers to the Eleventh Hour and introduces himself.
Pan out on Lipsyte to reveal Gordon Parks with a big white mustache sitting besides him in his work studio in his Manhattan apartment.
Gordon Parks 3:00
I was listening to my car radio and I was about 10 yards from Marlon Brando's house, near Beverly Hills, California. And I stopped the car. I couldn't believe it. And I was in a state of shock. went in to Marlons place and Marlon stretched out on the couch. He said hello, I said hello. I said you know Dr. King was dead. So Marlon didn't get up. He just looked at me. Rather steely. Look, listen. Are you kidding? Dr. King is dead. Yeah.So Marlon just sort of sat up on his couch and without saying anything else, call his assistants that are me some guns from my gunsmith. He told me the guns he wanted. asked me what kind of guns I wanted. I don't want any gun. And he called a panther headquarters in California. I don't know what he said to them. But I waited. And when he came back, I said, Marlon, what are you going to use the guns for? He said, I feel like shooting my my way all the way to Washington, DC. I said, Well, look at all those people down below. You're not just going to shutter shoot indiscriminately, they may feel exactly the same way you do. But I don't know what I talked him out of whether his own common sense talked him out of it. But I went on back to the hotel and shortly after I arrived, I got a call from Philip Kunhardt who was then acting as managing editor of Life magazine said, Gordon, I think this is one for you. I said I think so. And he said, Awesome. Can you get to Atlanta, I said I'll On the plane in a couple hours. And that's when I got on the plane after a couple hours.
Robert Lipsyte 5:05
We you you reacted professionally, you had something immediately to do. It seems interesting that Marlon Brando thought of violence, but you didn't.
Gordon Parks 5:15
Well, I'm Dr. King, philosophy. And I knew that that's the last thing Martin Luther King would want, is violence at the moment. And I was a follower of Martin Luther King. And my own work I've possibly kept too much of the anger in. But I've used it in my books and my photography, and my music. Whatever I attempted to do, I come out that way. I'm paying for it. Now. I have violent dreams. That period. And I even consulted my doctor about this as well. That's why it's coming out. And so I don't think it was a natural for me to feel nonviolent the moment I just felt a great tragedy.
Robert Lipsyte 6:14
You feel that suppressing your anger at that time is is causing the dreams now.
Gordon Parks 6:22
I feel so I think that a lot of my dreams now very violent. Wake up, maybe fighting the desk next to my bed. I lose it because it's harder than my fist. But my brother told me that when he died for he died and my younger brothers, you just call me Pedro. And I did something that I'll always regret. He was an invalid, and I threw some spinach in his face. He didn't react until he was on his dying bed. This said, Pedro, you know, your brain is a lot more powerful than your fist. I never forgot that.
Robert Lipsyte 7:12
The ballet is that? Is that purging some of the anger and the violence?
Gordon Parks 7:20
Well, it's more of a tribute to Martin, what I felt about him. I chose Glasgow for him because I've felt that modern London the classics, if anyone did, I've had people ask me. Why classical ballet. Martin Luther King dancing well, when asked to extend their imagination, beyond the limits, you know, that's the way I think that we've come by greater things. And I found nothing particularly outstanding. About my choosing a ballet I could have chosen the opera is so good. I happen to like ballet more.
Robert Lipsyte 8:13
There was something that I found at least ambiguous, if not troubling, in the ballet, in an act five, which was sort of a resurrection. Martin Luther King returns, and he's at the head of two lines. One of black people, one of white people. Black people reach out to the white people. The white people reject them.
Scenes from Act 5 of Gordon Parks ballet tribute to Martin Luther King.
Gordon Parks 9:14
Well, the if I were to have ended the ballet with the white people accepting there and I think I've been a cop out. Because whites have not accepted the blacks. We know what's going on now. Here in New York. In the south, the Ku Klux Klan again writing
Robert Lipsyte 9:42
you don't feel hopeful right now.
Gordon Parks 9:46
Oh, I've always felt hopeful about humanity, one must maintain a certain hope. If I didn't feel hope, and humanity I couldn't work things I work at and I try to involve at open just about everything I do. I have as many friends from different nationalities as I do, black friends,. I Certainly don't have any animosity toward a racist such when I stopped to realize I had a Swedish mother in law, a Chinese mother in law, and a black mother in law. I've been father in law to a Jewish lady, a Yugoslav a British gentleman, and a Frenchman. So there's a great little mixture in my own family. And people asked me sometimes when they come to interview me if I'm angry at the race, because they have a real choice of weapons, maybe my second autobiography, or the Learning Tree, I said, No.I was angry. Maybe it was naivete, but I turned that anger into books. And I got two bestsellers, motion pictures and things. And I used it constructively. I don't think that I did it purposely. I can't say that. I did it purposely. I think it was my early training. My mother and father were deeply religious, Methodist. I had 14 Brothers and sisters. I was the youngest. And they all love me. My mother and father loved me dearly, gave me all they possibly could before they died. And my dad's credo was always hit after your hit. But I said, Papa, sometimes that first lick can take you out completely. Now, not if you're born in Kansas, and you're strong, and I was born in Kansas, and I was strong. And I think that philosophy is carried me through all the trials that I've had.
Robert Lipsyte 12:16
Also, I mean, you've seen things, a unique point of view, I was thinking even you're returning to the United States. After you were, you're by now, in your 40s, you were a star of Life magazine, you had just spent a couple of years in Europe, where you had a very lush fashion photography, to your portfolio, the return to the United States and bang, you returned in in some of the most turbulent times of the century, in the 60s, and this innocence was after you had enjoyed a certain insulation from some of the problems, and now you were up against it. And here was King and here was the turbulence of the times. The question is, of course, what were your feelings then at this, this new America that had taken a corner while you were gone?
Montage of photos by Gordon Parks including B&W of beautiful little girl looking out a window, European color fashion photos; and photos of the turbulent times of the '60's.
Wide shot Host Lipsyte and Gordon Parks in Parks Manhattan studio.
The question is, of course, what were your feelings then at this, this new America that had taken a corner while you were gone?
Gordon Parks 13:22
Well, life assigned me to the Paris Bureau the Paris Bureau for two years, I think it was 50-51. It was a tremendous relief for me because I had lived through the intolerance of Kansas and discrimination and poverty as a kid. Suddenly, in, in France, I saw hardly any of this. I think it was the reason I opened up and I began to write poetry. I began to write books. And I began to compose music. Because my mind was free of having to live as a black man in America.
Robert Lipsyte 14:09
You chose to come back to America to fight of course, the weapon your primary weapon was the camera. I remember I remember. So I guess everybody does the photos in Life Magazine. Malcolm Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael. Were you surprised at all at the the ferment and anger that you found in America when you came back?
Montage of Gordon Parks' photos from Life Magazine: Malcolm X; Mohammed Ali; Stokely Carmichael
America when you came back?
Gordon Parks 14:37
No, no, I wasn't surprised. I knew it was going on. I I read an awful lot while I was in Europe, and kept abreast of what was happening back here. didn't quite know whether or not life was going to let me get so deeply involved. But very frankly, I I didn't feel life felt that I would be objective enough. And then you take the militants, my coming from a very conservative white magazine, whether they trusted me, so they both had to come to their decisions. As well I had to write my stories for life myself. Live understood that and had to be very careful about how they were headed as well. They wanted a story on Panthers, now common Muslims and Stokely and I was the only black writer, photographer there. And the militants wanted their voices heard as well. So they had to come to terms to and for the first I felt myself being in sort of a friendly enemy camp. But I let them know, quite frankly, that they should not do anything that they didn't want me to report. Because I was sort of setting a precedent Life magazine for black reporters, and writers especially and I didn't want to hurt that chance for some other black beret to come along. Furthermore, I was reported I was supposed to be objective.
Robert Lipsyte 16:26
One of the most interesting and startling pieces of writing that I remember from life was was this after Dr. King's death, and I wonder if you would read it to us.
Gordon Parks 16:36
You see I'll have to use my glasses? Oh, yes. Doctor spent King. For me. Dr. King spent the last dozen years of his life preaching love to men of all colors. And for all this a man white like you blasted a bullet through his neck. And in doing so, the madman has just about eliminated the last symbol of peace between us. We must struggle to distinguish between his act and your conscience. It is not enough anymore when you ask that all whites not be blamed for what one did. You must know how we really feel before the grass take over Dr. King's grave. We are angry all of us. Through the burning and looting won't help. But how else could you expect the black ghetto dweller to express his frustration? Could he have called the cop who has given him the back of his hand all these years should he have called the mayor of the White House. Dr. King's killer will remain a symbol of white attitude toward blacks. We have grown to doubt the hopeful songs of our fathers. We wonder if we shall overcome our doubts about your promises. We have grown to lack the patience to wait for God's deliverance. We want a new life
Robert Lipsyte 18:20
22 years later would you edit that at all?
Gordon Parks 18:29
I expect I would modify it. No. I expect I would in what I was that was the very closest I came to anger and possibly hatred. I was blind with rage really. I wrote that
Robert Lipsyte 18:50
you left life soon after that. And in a sense in those those 22 years since Dr. King was murdered of for the situation has has changed and yet it hasn't changed. For some black people life has gotten a lot better in America. For half of black people. It's gotten worse statistically. What what happened? Do you think to that dream?
Gordon Parks 19:21
Well, I think that when certain blacks prospered moved out of the ghettos and so forth one certain of them forgot to people still struggling now. It didn't reach back. And that's that's a mistake. When you come from something that's that bad.You must never forget the people back there, you must reach back. It's like a ladder to keep building building. I found nothing wrong with climbing on a white man's ladder. But I felt that almost must always reach back and help somebody else up with me. And I had a lot of white, who helped me. That is that has helped me maintain a faith and humanities such a lot of people have why people have helped me at times when I least expected. For instance, on this ballet, when I've given up hope I've ever done it. Southwestern Bell walks in unknown to me and said we would like to help you. Same things happen to me when I was kid going along my first camera, I can name an instance of that sort. And those things happened out of the goodness of somebody's heart, didn't make any difference what color that heart was. And that's what's given me faith in humanity, not necessarily America, but humanity.
Robert Lipsyte 21:19
You often talked about the cameras as your your weapon of choice. But in a sense, your your weapons of artistry have also been these lifelines that you've thrown back out to people. What, what do black? What to white? What do journalists artists have to do?
Gordon Parks 21:45
Well, I think they must really speak for the dispossessed people who can't speak for themselves. If you gain a certain notoriety, you're in a position to make people listen to you. Whatever art form you've chosen. I don't say you know, completely forsake the beautiful things in the world. I shot fashions for Vogue, for glamour, I shot the collections in Paris, I shot royalty. And looking for , Ingrid Bergman, and all movie stars in Hollywood and not the royalty in Europe. But my mind was always back here on harm all watts on the south side of Chicago, I couldn't forget that. I felt somehow another Gordon, if you can show another black boy, another Puerto Rican ball, another Mexican boy. He took and work on Vogue, he can work on Glamour, he can work on life. You've done a service in a way. And I found nothing wrong with photographing a beautiful woman in beautiful clothes. I accepted that to I've found a pleasure and I didn't find any great pleasure in photographing poverty. But it kept me aware of my mission and my purpose. With the camera when I went to Washington, DC in 1942, where I was expecting to, for some stupid reason other than find it the seat of democracy. I found the worst poverty and discrimination in the world. And that's when I took I think the first photograph is possibly my most memorable one, the charwoman with a mop in one hand and the broom and another standing in front of American flag. I really did nearly get all of FSA fired. But Roy Stryker was my boss said well. You're getting the idea. Take it easy. You know,
One of Parks most recognizable and memorable images - An African American woman, Ella Watson with a broom in one hand and mop in the other and standing in front of an American flag hanging on the wall behind her. Parks narrates.
I really did nearly get all of FSA fired. But Roy Stryker was my boss said well. You're getting the idea. Take it easy. You know,
Robert Lipsyte 24:13
you this was this was long before King. Yes. I mean, he didn't lead you into new ways. In a sense, he, he authenticated what was already in your mind?
Gordon Parks 24:25
No. I'm an older man and what I thought Martin was way beyond his time. Martin had prepared himself philosophically and intellectually, to do what he had to do. Actually, I don't know that Martin had that harder young life. And that's what I think is more remarkable about him. He realized that a lot of other people did. I don't think Martin had to face all the trial he faced and Those who condemned is not reacting violently, may have thought of him being sort of caught cowardly with Martin face bravery that they could not have possibly faced. It takes something to walk into a white surly mob. Who is demanding your neck and smile at them, they hit you and you fall and you get back up. That takes some doing. No, no cowardice there. I admired that. And I don't know what I could have done that fact I know I could. Someone hits me when I hit them back,
Robert Lipsyte 25:44
in a sense, in your creating the ballet, Martin, you're saying to us that there are things that we must still learn from him, we must still listen to him, and that he gave us a legacy. What do you think that was?
Gordon Parks 26:03
That is very simple. If I'm allowed to say, We shall overcome. I will say that he meant that by having faith in yourself and humanity in the gut of man, that you will over come all these problems. They just cannot keep beating you down. I would like in the March on some are just like the head faces coming and coming and coming at you forever, you know, in that particular sequence. And I think that's what I was trying to show there. When even as the people were being beaten down beside him. The message was keep on marching. Of course, if Martin had seen someone fall he would pick them up. But it was more important to show in a rather abstract way that you must no matter what's happening to your brother then you must keep the faith and the strength and keep marching against intolerance.
Robert Lipsyte 27:22
Gordon Parks thanks very much.
Gordon Parks 27:23
Thank you for having me on your show.
Robert Lipsyte 27:24
That's the 11th hour I'm Robert Lipsyte?
Interview concludes. Host Lipsyte announces the show and introduces himself. Show ends
Funding for the show by announcer and overlay the Eleventh Hour graphic.
Description: The Eleventh Hour - Show #295 Title: Gordon Parks Guests: Gordon Parks; Description: Host of the program, Robert Lipsyte, interviews Gordon Parks about his tribute ballet to Martin Luther King. Original Broadcast Date: 1-15-90
Keywords: Gordon Parks
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