Gordon Parks’ “Atmosphere of Crime” photos, the war in Iraq, a look back at William Manchester, and reader reactions: newsletter, Sept. 4, 2020

September 6, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, newsletter, newspapers, photojournalism, reporters, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,531) on Friday, September 4, 2020.


The idea rattling through in my head for the last few days has been “gentleness.” Our modern human world doesn’t put much stock in the idea of gentleness, but nature does. I’m lucky in that I get to watch honeybees flying around. I was watching one of them land on top of a well-house where I keep some shallow water that they need this time of year. Watching that bee land was a visual definition of gentleness. And you can find many other examples in the natural world if you just look closely.

Or watch this one-minute video of bees on buckwheat blooms, and you may get the idea of what I mean: https://youtu.be/ycVUgtogbXo

Paul the Apostle told his adherents that they should develop the characteristics of “gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:23) Gentleness is never illegal.

Have a gentle weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,531 subscribers and had a 27.4 percent open rate; 0 persons unsubscribed.

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Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957”

Gordon Parks bought his first camera in 1938 when he was 25 years old and living in Seattle, Washington.

Up to that time, Parks did not have much of a life. Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks was one of 15 children and experienced the cruelties of racism when some white kids pitched him into a river where they expected him to drown. Soon thereafter, his mother died, and the 11-year-old went to live with his sister in Minneapolis.

That living arrangement didn’t work out, and Parks found himself on the street fending for himself. He knocked about doing this and that in first one place and then another. After seeing some pictures of some migrant workers in a magazine, Parks bought that camera and taught himself how to take pictures. The camera cost $7.50, and it changed his life.

Parks honed his photography skills through his own portrait studio, freelance assignments, and a fellowship with the Farm Security Administration. Parks could use the camera as few others could to express his ideas about the society in which he was living. His “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.” (shown here) is one of his most famous pictures. It shows Ella Watson, a member of a cleaning crew at the FSA building in Washington, D.C., posed in a manner depicting the famous Grant Wood painting, American Gothic.

In the late 1940s Parks joined the Life magazine staff and in 1957 was asked to take on a six-week assignment that would document crime in large American cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. The resulting photo essay was an eight-page spread in Life titled “The Atmosphere of Crime.”

Those photographs, taken more than 50 years ago, have a special relevance in today’s public discussion of crime and racism. Their relevance is emphasized by the recent publication of a book Gordon Parks: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957, published by the Gordon Parks Foundation, working in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art.

Parks rejected clichés of delinquency, drug use and corruption, opting for a more nuanced view that reflected the social and economic factors tied to criminal behavior and a rare window into the working lives of those charged with preventing and prosecuting it. Transcending the romanticism of the gangster film, the suspense of the crime caper and the racially biased depictions of criminality then prevalent in American popular culture, Parks coaxed his camera to do what it does best: record reality so vividly and compellingly that it would allow Life’s readers to see the complexity of these chronically oversimplified situations. The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 includes an expansive selection of never-before-published photographs from Parks’ original reportage.. Source: The Atmosphere of Crime, 1957 – Gordon Parks – Steidl Verlag

In the next decade, Parks moved from still photography to film and wrote and directed the first major studio film by a Black director. The film, Shaft, was a huge box-office hit, and Parks went on to produce several more films.

Parks collected major awards in many areas of photography, film, and music before he died at the age of 93 in 2006. Parks’ memory is preserved not only by the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, New York, but also by the Gordon Parks Museum in Fort Scott, Kansas, where he was born.

Podcast: The history of the Iraq War in 10 episodes

When the George W. Bush administration decided to invade Iraq in 2003, they met relatively little opposition or even skepticism from official Washington. Democrats as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill thought it was a good idea.

Even the news media fell into line.

Lots of people thought it was a good idea. Those who didn’t generally kept their mouths shut, or they were ignored.

How did that happen? And what were the consequences?

Blowback, a 10-episode podcast by Brendan James and Noah Kulwin, recounts the events that got us to Baghdad and the disasters that kept us there for more than a decade.

Writing for Podcast Review, Jake Greenberg says

Kulwin, who writes for Jewish Currents, and James, who used to produce Chapo Trap House, naturally turn their attention to the media’s inadequacy. It remains astounding how little coercion the Bush administration had to practice to get their lies into major newspapers; the publishers were happy to print them. Blowback investigates the push-and-pull between the WMD misinformation that the New York Times and Washington Post took as fact, with the decent, skeptical journalism that regularly appeared buried deep inside those newspapers. Kulwin and James wisely use the mainstream media’s own reporting to disprove the stories those same outlets published on their front pages. Source: Blowback Podcast Review: An Honest History of the Iraq War

I have listened to three of these episodes (each is about an hour), and they are snappy, informed, and sometimes funny. They delve deeply into every topic they tackle of this unfortunate episode in American history.

Nearly two decades is more than enough time for us to begin an assessment of what happened and why. This series is a good place to start.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

Digital justice and digital punishment: taking the criminal justice system online

Our increasingly digital world — brought on by three decades of technology and accelerated by the current pandemic — has seeped into the justice system and made it more accessible.

Is that a good thing?

At first glance, yes. But Sarah Esther Lageson, a professor of criminal justice and author of the book Digital Punishment, throws up a bright yellow light of caution.

The consequences of open criminal justice records and live courtroom proceedings on YouTube are not always benign, Lageson writes in a recent article for The Crime Report:

Today, you can watch hundreds of livestream court events—many on YouTube—ranging from felony arraignments to traffic ticket hearings to family court proceedings. For the defendant or witness, this is a welcome change. Going to court no longer requires a person to find childcare, take time off work, or risk exposure to COVID.

However, they must now contend with their name and image broadcast across the internet.

Streaming court proceedings uses the same logic as the decision to release court documents on the Internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Rooted in virtues of transparency and accountability, the argument is that anything you might witness or access in person by visiting court should be similarly available on the Internet.

These are laudable goals. However, the turn to digital access had the unintended consequence of creating digital punishment: a phenomenon where the collection and release of digital criminal justice information creates permanent online stigmatization for millions of people arrested or processed through U.S. courts each year. Source: The Perils of ‘Zoom Justice’ | The Crime Report

As many others have learned during the last 30 years, those involved in the criminal justice system are learning that you can’t just “take your business online” and expect it to operate in the same way that it always did. That was what newspapers thought 20 years ago — when they weren’t ignoring online possibilities altogether — and they have had to absorb a very harsh lesson.

From the archives: William Manchester: the sad end of a great writer

William Manchester was a magnificent writer and historian whose subjects were amazingly interesting. He made them more so.

Manchester is the author of the three-volume biography of Winston Churchill (referred to in a number of previous posts including here and here), The Last Lion.

Manchester reached the peak of prominence in the 1960s when he was designated by the Kennedy family to write about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Manchester was given access to the Kennedy family to conduct his research, but once he wrote his manuscript, controversy ensued. Robert Kennedy did not like the way he portrayed Lyndon Johnson, and Jacqueline Kennedy objected to some of the passages about her. She sued to stop publication of the book.

Negotiations with the family led to Manchester’s cutting some passages of the book, and when Death of a President was published in 1967, it was a best-seller.

Manchester loved to write and could do so for days on end — literally. He once wrote for three days and nights, breaking briefly to eat small cups of yogurt from a refrigerator in his office. In all, he produced 18 books with a writing style noted for bringing a subject to life and imbuing a story with dramatic flares. His first two volumes of the Churchill biography were wildly popular and gained something a cult-like following.

While writing the third, however, Manchester suffered the death of his wife in 1998 and then two debilitating strokes. In 2001, he announced that he would be unable to finish the third volume. The New York Times article about this announcement, quoted below, tells the sad story.

Most frustrating, he says, is the loss of his subject: the grand and tumultuous figure of Winston Churchill, whose life and times Mr. Manchester brought into dramatic focus, has slipped away without a proper finish. For the 20-plus years that the pairing lasted, Mr. Manchester and Churchill seemed a nearly perfect fit: the eminent, enthusiastic biographer chasing the brilliant and relentless wartime leader. Source: Ailing Churchill Biographer Says He Can’t Finish Trilogy – The New York Times

Manchester finally asked Paul Reid, a friend and writer in Florida, to finish the last volume. Manchester died at the age of 82 in 2004.


Tom A.: Belated thanks for the newsletter item about Richard Tregaskis. I suspect I was in my early teens when I read “Guadalcanal Diary.” I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate its graphic images, but I do remember reading it and noting the distinctive name of the author. I’m glad to know more about him, his subsequent writing from other theaters of war and of his unfortunate manner of death. It is notable that he is remembered at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, a place I want to visit when the coronavirus hobbles are removed.

Amy L.: I loved the story about Mary King Ward! What an interesting life she had, and then the crowning touch is her death being so noteworthy! But she was adventurous, and the old cliché, she died doing something she loved, is especially relevant here. 

I don’t know how you find all these obscure people to tell about, but keep doing it.
Vic C.: Twenty years ago, I had a rather nasty fall — 6 feet onto concrete, head-first.  Aside from disqualifying me from jury duty (my short-term memory now requires taking notes), I was left with a stammer and aphasia.  As an instructor and public speaker, I was… what, disconsolate, dismayed, angry?  After some time passed, I found that I was getting used to my new tongue-tiedness. My acceptance and release of all burdens came when I remembered that I’d had a friend who stammered from birth.  He was very successful, and I said to myself, “If he can do it without shame (ah-hah!), then what have I to complain about?”  From that point, whenever I found myself unable to speak with difficulty, I would — and still do — pause and explain to my audience that I had this problem and hoped they would bear with me.  Never had any difficulty, thereafter.  My political leanings are irrelevant in this case: my respect for Joe Biden is boundless.

Charles F.: Lots to appreciate in the newsletter this week and last:

This week, I was glad to see the mention of Richard Ben Cramer. I had the pleasure (and privilege) of being one of the editors on the foreign desk at The Philadelphia Inquirer when he was a correspondent for the paper in the Middle East. What a brilliant reporter and fine writer he was. I’m proud to have known him and to occasionally work with him. It’s fitting that his work should still be available. Re: the demise of the Aunt Jemima brand, all I can say as one who grew up in Alabama and Tennessee in the 1950s and 1960s is that it’s about time.
Last week, I especially enjoyed seeing the James Lee Burke item. I’ve read nearly everything he’s published, especially the Robicheaux books, so it was good to see the item in the newsletter.
Thanks for the great newsletters. 

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor (with graphite): The violin player

Best quote of the week:

The fingers of your thoughts are molding your face ceaselessly. Charles Reznikoff, poet (1894-1976)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: A top 19th-century female scientist and writer remembered, the history of Aunt Jemima, and Richard Ben Cramer on Joe Biden: newsletter, August 28, 2020


Maryville 1920: exceptional local history

Every Sunday in 1920 and for decades previously, Second Presbyterian Church in Maryville, Tennessee, gathered together African-American citizens from businessmen to laborers, housewives to teachers. It was one of two Black congregations in this small East Tennessee community, and its basement housed something commonly known as the city’s “colored library.”

Today there is almost no trace of Second Presbyterian Church. The building is gone, as are most of its records. But my friend Brennan LeQuire has dug deep and come up with information about this long-lost part of the community. What she found — and much more — is in Maryville 1920: From Pistol Creek to the Palace Theater, which was published on Amazon this past weekend.

I helped edit the book and contributed several original pen and ink drawings, including the one above: “Sunday at Second Presbyterian.” Her book is a sterling piece of local history and a model of good research and interesting stories. I urge you to take a look.

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