50 years of ‘The Learning Tree’: David Parks reflects on his father’s legacy

David Park reflects on his father, Gordon Parks' photography career on Sept. 26, 2019. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

As the movie ‘The Learning Tree’ passes its 50th anniversary, Fort Scott Community College prepares to host the Gordon Parks Celebration Days in honor of the late, Kansas-native filmmaker. On Thursday evening, Kansas State held its own celebration, featuring David Parks as a guest speaker. David Parks, Gordon’s son, boasts equally astounding credentials: he’s an author, photographer, film director and war veteran.

During his lecture, David Parks explained both the effects he had on his father’s work, as well as the impact his father had on him. Their story began with tragedy and racism.

“Dad went out and went to the movie theater and they wouldn’t let him through the door,” Parks said. “He went to the restaurant and they wouldn’t let him in the restaurant. He went to the other things, and he came back with no photographs … and that’s where it began. He took that camera and he started doing something about it. He started photographing the racism, and prejudices, and all the things that existed in Washington D.C.”

Ultimately, Parks explained, this was how his father found the path to success.

“LIFE magazine…gave him a shot,” Parks said. “They said, ‘It’s about time we got a black man in here to do something.’”

With a little guidance from LIFE magazine executives, Gordon Parks later turned his life of travel and photography into one of writing and cinematography.

“A photographer at LIFE magazine had suggested that my father…should write a book about that,” Parks said. “So he says, ‘Well, I’ve never written a book,” and the man said, ‘Everyone has to start somewhere.’”

His book “The Learning Tree” quickly became a best-seller, named by the Library of Congress as one of the 20th century’s most influential works. Soon after, Parks’ father was pushed into another unfamiliar but welcoming territory.

“Someone had suggested he should make a film out of the book,” Parks said. “I was with him when he went out to California to get the ball rolling on the movie, and I was with him when he went to Warner Brothers.”

Parks said he was always a part of his father’s life, be it as a fellow traveler, an assistant or an inspiration. A few years after “The Learning Tree” Gordon Parks was asked to direct “The Leadbelly.”

“He said, ‘If my son comes back alive, we’ll do it,’ and, so, I came back alive and we ended up in Austin, Texas,” Parks said. “We shot that in ‘75, and I went back after a couple years. I went back to go on vacation; it was supposed to be for a week, but that turned into 10 months, and after that I decided, ‘Well, I’m just going to stay here.’”

David Parks boasts equally astounding credentials as his father. He is an author, photographer, film director and war veteran. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

Since moving to Texas, Parks has published poetry, photography and worked on several films independently. His early exposure to the world of media piqued his interest, and Parks credits his father’s career as creating his own.

Taylor Lust, senior in mass communications, attended the lecture.

“I thought it was really awesome,” Lust said. “I was actually really surprised; I came here on a job, as an ambassador, but I really enjoyed listening to him and seeing how cool of a guy he is. He makes people laugh. … He was really funny and just such a kind guy. A lot about his personality surprised me.”

Parks closed his lecture on a serious note with a word of advice for anyone pursuing any passion: “Don’t let mistakes take you out … I’ve learned more from mistakes than I have from successes.”