The Woman in a Jim Crow Photo
By MAURICE BERGER
When Joanne Wilson stepped out to enjoy a balmy summer afternoon with her niece in 1956, she stepped into history. The two stood in front of a movie theater in downtown Mobile, Ala., dressed in their Sunday best. But the neon sign that loomed overhead — “Colored Entrance” — cast a despairing shadow.
“I wasn’t going in,” Mrs. Wilson recalled. “I didn’t want to take my niece through the back entrance. She smelled popcorn and wanted some. All I could think was where I could go to get her popcorn.”
That moment was captured by Gordon Parks, who was working on a Life photo essay that documented everyday life among an extended African-American family in the rural South. Although it was not among the final selections published in September 1956 as “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” the photograph of Mrs. Wilson and her niece, Shirley Diane Kirksey, is among the most compelling of the project.
We usually associate civil rights photography with dramatic scenes of historic events. But this image helps us to understand that the battle for racial equality and justice was waged not just through epic demonstrations, speeches and conflagrations, but also through the quiet actions of individuals.
More than half a century later, the Gordon Parks Foundation honored Mrs. Wilson with a gift of that color print during its celebrity-filled annual awards dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. [Continue reading at the New York Times.]