Internationally celebrated photojournalist Gordon Parks was on his own at 15, with both his parents dead. Hungry, broke and shivering on a freezing evening in St. Paul, Minn., he confronted a train conductor who had a wad of money. Parks pulled a switchblade.
It was the only time he almost committed a major crime, Parks, 84, told a group of Verbum Dei High School students Thursday in Watts.
"At that moment, in that white man's face, I saw my father's black face," he said. "And I heard my father say, 'What the hell are you doing?' So I looked at the conductor and said: 'You wanna buy a knife?' "
He has inspired generations of African Americans through his photography, writings, movies, music and, perhaps most important, his never-say-die spirit.
And that spirit was out in full force Thursday when Parks spoke to students from Verbum Dei High School at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Center.
"We have brought you history today," said Janine Watkins, the center's special events coordinator. More than 100 students sat in rapt attention as Parks took them through highlights of his life.
For an hour, the dapper former Life magazine photographer delighted the group with his humor, philosophy and tales of growing up black in the Midwest during the Depression.
"If you want to do something, nothing can stop you," said Parks, who wrote and directed feature films such as "Shaft" and "The Learning Tree." "You can do anything you want to do if you want it bad enough."
Parks credited his deeply religious parents with giving him the proper values. In order to provide a skin graft for a young girl who had been badly burned in a house fire, Parks' father, Jackson, donated skin from his back.
Later, someone asked Parks' father if the girl's family had thanked him and sent flowers.
"My father told the man, 'I didn't do it for thanks. I didn't do it for flowers. I did it for the girl.' "
One student asked Parks, who has inspired so many, who was his inspiration. After mentioning his parents again, Parks said his life changed when he viewed Farm Service Administration photographs depicting the devastating effects of the Depression.
"I thought I could show racism the way the FSA showed the Depression," he said.
A short while after seeing those photos, he sold his first photograph to the Washington Post. It showed a black cleaning woman holding a mop and a broom standing before the American flag. Parks compares the shot to Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic." Today, it is Parks' most famous photograph.
In 1949, he became Life's first black staff photographer and traveled the world. One of his most famous articles was a profile of Red Jackson, a Harlem street gang leader with whom he lived for three months. A generation later, Parks' reputation helped him gain access to the Black Panthers.
"Once we were riding around in Berkeley and one of the Panthers had a gun," Parks said. "I told him my 35 [millimeter camera] was more powerful than his 45."
Three weeks later, Parks said, that Panther was dead.
Margret Triplett, an English teacher at all-boys Verbum Dei, said she wanted her class to take away an appreciation for the past.
"He shows that it doesn't matter where you're from, you have an opportunity to move forward," Triplett said.
Derrick Hogan, 13, who appeared somewhat awe-struck by Parks, said: "I learned about history. People think it's bad now, but it was worse back then."
Parks, who is still busy writing and composing and who was honored Thursday by the Director's Guild of America, had high praise for the Watts Labor Action Community Center. In all his travels around the world, he said, he had never seen a place so committed to the youth of the neighborhood.
Wearing a stylish double-breasted blue blazer, silver handkerchief and brown plaid pants, the legendary photojournalist posed for pictures with the group and left the students with one last bit of advice:
"Don't let anybody tell you you can't do something. Be prepared and make yourself so special that they'll have no choice. They'll have to hire you. There is no obstacle you can't overcome. There are no excuses."