Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, on November 30th, 1912. Parks reports that he was actually born dead, but was saved through the efforts of an innovative young doctor. The youngest of 15 children, Parks was raised by a devoutly Christian mother and a hard-working and moral father. The Parks family was part of the black poor populace of Fort Scott, at that time a very segregated city, but the values instilled by his parents allowed Parks to dream of a brighter future. Parks left Kansas for Minnesota after his mother's death when he was just 15.
After leaving Kansas, Parks moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, to live with a sister. However, after a family dispute he was out on the street, where he was homeless for a time. After a series of menial jobs, Parks discovered a talent for photography. As the result of his native talent and a series of lucky breaks, Parks was able to develop photography into his lifelong calling.
Parks worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration during the depression, as a fashion photographer for Vogue magazine after the second world war, and then as for the prestigous Life magazine for 20 years, from 1948 until 1968. Besides photography, Parks also discovered a talent for writing. An autobiography of his early years, "The Learning Tree"became a bestseller, and he would go on to write three memoirs and a number of other works, including novels, poetry, music, and even a ballet. Parks would become the first African American to direct a major studio picture with his adaptation of "The Learning Tree." Parks would later direct, act in, or consult on a number of films.
Parks was influential in the civil rights movement, not as a speaker or organizer, but through the influence his work had on others. Parks did a series of photos for Life that brought the plight of the black poor in the segregated south home to northern whites. Parks was allowed access to photograph in the Nation of Islam, becoming so close to Malcolm X that he was asked to be the godfather of X's daughter. When following the Black Panthers, he was offered a spot in the agency's heirarchy. Even Parks' film, "Shaft," often billed as "blaxploitation," has been credited by some African Americans, including Russell Simmons, as giving them a new sense of power.
Parks was married and divorced three times, and was romantically linked to a number of other women, including Gloria Vanderbilt. He had 4 children, including Gordon, Jr., who followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a photographer and moviemaker.
Gordon Parks died in New York on March 7th, 2006 was a result of cancer. He was ninety-three. Parks is buried in Fort Scott, Kansas.