At first glance, many of these photographs of Alabama in 1956 suggest the mellow, nostalgic visions of traditional American life that we associate with Norman Rockwell's illustrations or Ronald Reagan's speeches. Look again, and many of the people in these pictures appear clustered near signs announcing "White" or "Colored" that imposed race-based restrictions on their freedom. Scenes that appeal to our nostalgia for a more "innocent" time turn out to be more like South Africa's sinister apartheid era. They are the work of the late Gordon Parks, whose dramatic photo essays for LIFE magazine presaged his later career as a filmmaker, and the cinematic contrast of blatant racism appearing in otherwise innocent-looking places underscores this paradoxical and strangely misanthropic twist in our history.
In Department Store, Mobile Alabama, 1956 (pictured), a primly dressed woman and her daughter stand on the sidewalk below a sign spelling out "Colored Entrance" in big red neon letters in a scene that in purely visual terms resonates nostalgia, which only makes its symbolism all the more chilling. At an old time Dairy Freeze, signs advertising shakes and sundaes share space with others announcing "White" and "Colored" service windows. Parks' photos of Alabama black folks at home evoke a sense of old-time Americana worthy of Grant Wood, and although he was later better known for images of tumultuous civil rights protests, it is hard to imagine pictures that convey the sheer freakishness of the racist past more effectively than these Segregation Story photographs. Lost for decades, they turned up in 2012, and will soon appear in a book and a major exhibit at Atlanta's High Museum of Art. They also provide a context for Ti-Rock Moore's recent civil rights-inspired works at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and Gallery Twenty-One Fourteen, where a neon sign candidly spells out "White Privilege" among other works reminding us that vestiges of white supremacy linger on, and we can only wonder how historians will view this period a half century from now.