When Gordon Parks was growing up in Fort Scott, Kan., his mother told him to never give up. That advice sustained him through his mother’s death, leaving home, being homeless, and to an amazing life and career. Perhaps the most important event of Parks’ life was his birth. He has told it before: He was born dead. A young white doctor plunged the bloody baby into icy water to revive him. In gratitude, the baby’s mother named her son Gordon after the physician. And so begins a history of fighting for the life he wanted.
“Gordon Parks is one of the most influential photojournalists, authors and composers of our time,” said Ann Brill, dean of the School of Journalism.
“The fact that he was a Kansan makes the presentation of this award even more special. We think William Allen White would concur with the words on the citation that Gordon Parks is ‘An American Journalist Who Exemplifies William Allen White Ideals In Service To His Profession And His Community.’”
Parks has received numerous prestigious awards and was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002. He was the first black photographer to shoot for Life and Vogue.
He is also an accomplished filmmaker and composer. He directed the movie Shaft in 1971 and has composed a piano concerto, a symphony, two sonatas, a ballet and three film scores. He is currently at work with cellist Yo Yo Ma on another
Parks just released two books, Hungry Heart, a new memoir, and Eyes with Winged Thoughts, featuring his poetry and photographs. Gordon Parks: No Excuses, a children’s book by Ann Parr of Lindsborg, Kan., comes out next month. He is the author of many other works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, including The Learning Tree, A Choice of Weapons and To Smile
Parks once told Black Enterprise, “At first I wasn’t sure that I had the talent, but I did know I had a fear of failure, and that fear compelled me to fight off anything that might abet it. I suffered evils, but without allowing them to rob me of the freedom to expand.”
Parks has been referring to the autumn of his life for decades, but he refrains from talking about his “winter.” That suggests that at the age of 93, he is not yet finished writing, photographing and living. That’s to be expected from someone who learned early on to not give up.
Parks died March 7, 2006, shortly after receiving the William Allen White medal.