The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-1968

Overview

With a far-ranging selection of striking images and a lively, cogent text, Steven Kasher captures the danger, drama, and bravery of the civil rights movement. After an introduction explaining the vital importance of photography to the movement, the book proceeds from the Montgomery bus boycott through the student, local, and national movements; the big marches in Washington and Selma; Freedom Summer; Malcolm X and Black Power; and the death of Martin Luther King. Each chapter begins with a fast-paced narrative of...
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Overview

With a far-ranging selection of striking images and a lively, cogent text, Steven Kasher captures the danger, drama, and bravery of the civil rights movement. After an introduction explaining the vital importance of photography to the movement, the book proceeds from the Montgomery bus boycott through the student, local, and national movements; the big marches in Washington and Selma; Freedom Summer; Malcolm X and Black Power; and the death of Martin Luther King. Each chapter begins with a fast-paced narrative of a crucial event in the movement, complemented by a portfolio of the most effective and evocative photographs of the subject. Ranging from the well known to the rare, these images were shot by photographers including Richard Avedon, Danny Lyon, Charles Moore, Gordon Parks, Dan Weiner, and over fifty others. Many of the pictures are accompanied by thought-provoking remembrances and analysis by various photographers and participants. A concise chronology of the major civil rights events of the period and useful suggestions for additional reading conclude this invaluable, inspiring volume.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The civil rights movement has produced enduring images, and the famous ones are collected here: separate (and unequal) white and black water fountains, police dogs on the streets of Birmingham, Martin Luther King proclaiming "I Have a Dream," Memphis strikers with their "I Am a Man" placards. As New York City photographer Kasher observes, "No other American pictures radiate so brightly a collective passion for justice." This book, which collects some 150 black-and-white photos, is indeed a history, offering many lesser-known images that also resonate. See legendary organizer Septima Clark lead older women in a citizenship class; a bespectacled Elizabeth Eckford, one of the "Little Rock Nine," walk stoically ahead of jeering white students; Julian Bond pose with fellow SNCC volunteers, seemingly too young to help change history; and a Mississippi-delta organizing house that has painted the word Freedom on a cross burned by the Klan. Kasher's chapter introductions are lucid overviews of the movement, while the captionssome of which reproduce the original, stilted wire-service captionsare also effective and informative. A moving tribute. Author tour. (Oct.)
KLIATT
Black-and-white photographs abound in this collection, and there is quite a lot of text as well; the binding and paper quality are excellent. The material is divided into the following chapters: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955; Little Rock Central High, 1957, and the University of Mississippi, 1962; Sit-ins and Freedom Rides, 1960-62; The Birmingham Movement, 1963; The March on Washington, 1963; SNCC and Mississippi, 1960-64; Selma, 1965; Black Power and the March Against Fear, 1966; The Eclipsing of Nonviolence, 1965-68. You can see just from these chapter titles that this is a serious history of the Civil Rights Movement, not just a set of gripping photographs. A great deal of detail is given in each chapter—many participants named, and often quoted; strategies described. Some photographs are those by famous photographers (Gordon Parks, Richard Avedon), and others are relatively unknown. This would be a good companion to the prize-winning video series The Eyes on the Prize because both go over the same history, but the book allows the reader to linger over descriptions and photographs. KLIATT Codes: JSA—Recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Abbeville Press, 255p, illus, bibliog, index, 23cm, 96-4337, $27.50. Ages 13 to adult. Reviewer: Claire Rosser; November 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 6)
Library Journal
The catalog for a traveling exhibition organized by New York City-based photographer, writer, and curator Kasher, this book contains images by more than 50 photographers, whose images were borrowed from photo agencies, galleries, and private collections. Ten accompanying essays break the Civil Rights movement into chronological periods. Kasher's research, writing, and photo selection are impeccable and engaging, resulting in perhaps the strongest book yet published on this topic. He pulls the reader into a narrative that recounts and analyzes events so outrageous that one who didn't live through the period might think them impossible. What remains are feelings of deep national shame and of admiration for the courageous protesters. The book ends with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Poor People's March on Washington in 1968, far short of the end of racism in this country. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of Medgar Evers and chair of the NAACP, provides an eloquent foreword. Highly recommended for general collections and collections on photojournalism and photo-history, sociology and social history, political science, and African American history.-Kathleen Collins, New York Transit Museum Archives, Brooklyn
Kirkus Reviews
In an era saturated by media, our collective memory is formed by visual images. The historical images collected here by photographer and writer Kasher in The Civil Rights Movement ( Oct. 1996; ISBN 0-7892-0123-2) are necessary reminders, in a time of white backlash, of just how bitter and bloody and heroic the battle for civil rights was. From Gordon Parks, Dan Weiner, and other photographic chroniclers of the era, we see the Little Rock Nine integrating Central High, surrounded by National Guardsmen; a policeman holding a protestor in a chokehold; buses running empty during the Montgomery bus boycott while blacks crowd the street corners waiting for rides. These aren't pretty pictures, but collectively, and with Kasher's text, they tell a central—perhaps the central—story of midcentury America.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789206565
  • Publisher: Abbeville Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/28/1996
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,149,693
  • Product dimensions: 8.92 (w) x 9.04 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Foreword

My husband lay dying in a pool of blood on the doorstep of our home in Jackson, Mississippi. His body had been toppled by a cowardly assassin's bullet and left for the world--and his children--to see. I can still see Medgar's handsome features distorted in excruciating pain as he succumbed to death's premature call. It is this distinct memory of his final hours during that June day in 1963 that has haunted me as I have looked back over this book's often scathing yet also inspiring images.

I don't remember the details of his funeral. That widely publicized photo of a tearstained young woman mourning the death of her first love could not have been me. I was too inexperienced to have been a widow. And my husband was too peace-loving to have been a casualty of war.

Just days before Medgar's death, he had remarked to a reporter: "If I die, it will be in a good cause. I've been fighting for America just as much as soldiers in Vietnam." I wonder about the images that my husband must have carried within him on his quest for equality. How emotionally draining it must have been on his spirit to bear in mind the unrecognizable portrait of the battered Emmett Till as Medgar pursued justice to bring the young boy's murderers to trial. Nothing could have shielded Medgar's eyes from the deplorable conditions of the Mississippi sharecroppers or from the "strange fruit" hung on trees by brutal barbarians.

When the struggle for freedom began in the late 1950s, the individuals participating in the civil rights movement could not possibly have foreseen that protesting in support of basic human dignity would culminate in one of the most heartrending civil wars of American history.The stories and the photographs seen in this book testify to the shameful conditions endured by black Americans during a period when democracy was being promoted and fought for on the international front. Most blacks in America lived without even the limited liberties afforded citizens of third-world countries. The faces that stare at you from the pages that follow are marked with the determination of individuals who were prepared to die for their own right to be free.

While some of the faces in these photographs reflect the scars and weary tears of battle fatigue, there are also visions of hope mirrored in the eyes of the warriors. A picture of the Little Rock Nine studying in quiet determination pending their admittance into the town's previously segregated high school offers evidence that we were moving in the right direction. Just three years before, the victorious 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education had struck down segregation in the nation's public schools, and it has also been applied to promoting equality in all aspects of American society. And who can forget the moving, spirited challenge of Fannie Lou Hamer's emotional testimony, when she moved the hearts of all those who heard her during the 1964 Democratic Convention. These are but two of the proud images to be seen in this work.

Every battle has its public and its private moments of defeat and victory. Every historical moment is made up of a multitude of personal experiences. Those battles and those experiences within the civil rights movement have been prolifically documented in written histories, but the camera has captured them with even greater force. For those of us who lived through these events, nothing brings them to mind more vividly than the extremely moving photographs seen here. They also serve to educate generations who were not alive during this provocative stage in our history. A young woman recently commented to me that she "hears so many speak about that period of time. It helps to hear the story, but we want--and need--more. Photos help because we can touch them and try to feel what it was like to live during that time."

As we search for answers to help us solve the pressing issues in this country, books such as this one will play a major part. Not only does it take us back to a period when events originated that would shape the American scene for years to come, but it also reinforces the need to address civil rights issues into the twenty-first century.

I find it difficult to look at these photographs without flinching from the memories and from the anger they invoke. But I must look. I must remember, as you must. For this was history in the making. Like it or not, you cannot hide from the camera's eye.

Introduction

The civil rights movement cannot be understood without contemplating the photographs and the newsreel footage that presented it to an enormous audience. The persuasive and protective power of those pictures was recognized immediately. In Why We Can't Wait, his book on the Birmingham movement of 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote about the media coverage of a campaign he had helped orchestrate: "The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught--as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught--in gigantic circling spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world."

King had in mind the already famous photographs of the Birmingham struggles-images of protesters attacked by police dogs and battered by high-pressure water cannons. His metaphor is apt: the media as a spotlight that exposes and thereby halts secret actions, a light that imprisons the imprisoners. King knew that cameras were helping to dismantle arsenals of oppression. The organizers of the Birmingham movement staged conflicts for the media to publicize. Some of the clashes between protesters and police became spectacles with immense visual resonance. The Birmingham photographs, published on front pages here and abroad, captured ruthless repression in extraordinarily vivid images. Scenes unthinkable to Americans as American were shown to America and all the world. Public sympathy and financial support, as well as political backing, flowed to movement organizations.

Because it was an essential Cold War strategy of the United States to project an image of Americans guarding and encouraging democracy around the world, the Birmingham photographs were an international embarrassment. President John F. Kennedy said that the Birmingham pictures on the front page of the Washington Post made him sick. Some of his queasiness no doubt resulted from having to explain those pictures to African leaders. As his aide Harris Wofford had written to him in 1962, on returning from an African tour, "Ending discrimination in America would do more to promote good relations with Africa than anything else." It was partly in response to the Birmingham protests that Kennedy initiated the bill that, after his death, would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The photographs of the civil rights movement constitute the deepest and broadest photographic documentation of any social struggle in America. Their quantity, variety, and quality found a new receptiveness on the part of white Americans to look at African-American struggles for liberation--struggles that dated back to emancipation and beyond that to slavery. This new openness was stimulated by new social factors and new ideologies, including postwar prosperity and Cold War antifascism. During the civil rights era, images of black struggles for equality entered many white homes for the first time.

In the past the white news media had ignored positive images of African-American life and suppressed portrayals of black political action. A clear example is cited by historian Nicholas Natanson. In New Madrid County, Missouri, during the winter of 1938-39, landowners sought to evict hundreds of black and white tenant farmers so that cheaper day laborers could be hired instead. Owen Whitfield, a black Baptist preacher and organizer for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, persuaded the sharecroppers to mount a protest.

Thirteen hundred of the displaced farmers pitched camp along a hundred-mile stretch of Highways 60 and 61. The protest received extensive coverage in newspapers across the nation, but blacks were given scant notice in the published reports and photographs, even though more than 90 percent of the protesters were black. The role of the black organizers was omitted altogether. Photographs that give a better indication of black activism were made by Arthur Rothstein (a Farm Security Administration photographer), but they were not published at the time.

The Emmett Till lynching, in 1955, received a different kind of press coverage, extensive coverage that was new in America. Racial lynching-the abduction and murder of black men by white mobs-was the most extreme form of the physical intimidation that undergirded so much American racism prior to the civil rights movement. Lynching, a homegrown form of American terrorism used to scare off blacks from voting and seeking other rights, had begun in the Reconstruction era directly after the Civil War and was spread by the Ku Klux Klan. Walter Chivers, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s sociology professor at Morehouse College, estimated that in the South between 1880 and 1922 a lynching was perpetrated every two and a half days. The law and the press ignored these murders even though they were often carried out in public, with advance notice and with the cooperation of leading white citizens.

Emmett Till was a fourteen-year-old black schoolboy visiting relatives near the hamlet called Money in the Mississippi Delta. Because he had prankishly flirted with a white shopkeeper, he was brutally beaten and shot. Several days later his corpse was found in the Tallahatchie River, with a gin-mill fan barbwired around his neck. The boy's mother, Mamie Bradley, insisted that his body be shipped back home to Chicago, where it was displayed in an open coffin for four days. At least a hundred thousand members of the black community stood in line for hours to view the body. The leading black periodicals, including Jet and the Chicago Defender, juxtaposed earlier photographs of the bright-eyed youngster in shirt and tie with the horrific picture of his bashed and bloated face. The story of the huge outpouring of sympathy--and the lynching behind it--was picked up by the white press as well.

The trial of Till's murderers resulted in acquittal (they later gave a full confession to writer William Bradford Huie for four thousand dollars). Black congressman Charles Diggs of Detroit, who attended the trial in Sumner, Mississippi, later commented that "the picture in Jet magazine showing Emmet Till's mutilation was probably the greatest media product in the last forty or fifty years, because that picture stimulated a lot of interest and anger on the part of blacks all over the country."

Pictures and stories about Emmett Till's murder transformed many who would fight in the civil rights movement over the next decade. Joyce Ladner of Waynesboro, Mississippi, recalled: "As the search for the body went on, my older sister and I...wanted to be the first in line to buy the Hattiesburg American. Each day we pored over the clippings of the lynching we kept in our scrapbook, and cried: Emmett Till was about our age...When we saw his bloated body in Jet magazine, we asked each other 'How could they do that to him? He's only a young boy.'" Joyce and Dorrie Ladner would later become leading members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"). Anne Moody recalled, "Before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me--the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. . . . I didn't know what one had to do or not to do as a Negro not to be killed." Moody was fifteen in 1955 and soon became active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and SNCC.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks would both acknowledge the impact of the Till case, which received considerable coverage in their local newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser. Just three months after the Till murder trial, Parks was arrested for protesting bus segregation laws, and the modern civil rights movement began its activist phase.

A studio portrait of a young man, a corpse recorded for a black newspaper, shots of political protests taken for major news agencies: the consequential images of the civil rights movement were made by many types of photographers--photojournalists, movement photographers, antimovement photographers, artists, and amateurs. Each had distinct commitments and points of view.

Most civil rights photographs were taken by professional photojournalists, who set out to record newsworthy events according to the professional principle of objectivity. Many of the pictures that turned out to be most important to the movement--pictures that inspired substantive support--were made by photojournalists who were hardly promovement and appeared in publications that were hardly liberal. The Montgomery Advertiser, where Charles Moore was chief photographer in the early 1960s, was a typically segregationist southern newspaper that relegated "Negro News" to a separate section. But Moore remembers: "The newspaper tried very hard to portray everything fairly. It could have ignored the civil rights story; a very conservative paper would have said, 'We're giving this troublemaker King too much publicity. Let's ignore him. Maybe it will die down.' Well, the Montgomery paper didn't do that."

Some photojournalists covering the movement realized that they were recording crucial moments of a nation in transition, and they were inspired by that prescience of historical significance. Some, even in the South, were angered by the scenes of racist injustice that they witnessed and came to support the cause of civil rights, insinuating that support into their pictures.

African-American photographers made a significant contribution to civil rights photography. Whether working for the black press, for a movement organization, or (in a very few instances) for the white press, black photographers often had access to situations that white photographers did not. Their pictures almost always convey the sense that they were photographing their own leaders, their own enemies, their own fellow victims. Black photographers of the movement included Gordon Parks and Frank Dandridge working for Life; Robert Sengstacke of the Chicago Defender; Joffre Clark, Fred de Van, Bob Fletcher, Rufus Hinton, Julius Lester, Francis Mitchell, and Clifford Vaughs of SNCC; and freelancers Ernest Withers, Beuford Smith, and Robert Houston. (In addition, Johnson Publishing Co., the owners of Jet and Ebony magazines, employed a large staff of black photographers--most notably, Moneta Sleet, Jr. Unfortunately, their work is almost totally unavailable for exhibition or publication due to very strict control of permissions by Johnson Publishing.)

The civil rights movement in the United States flourished in the age of television. In 1953, 45 percent of American households had television; just three years later the number had jumped to over 83 percent. The Telstar I communications satellite began to enable worldwide television linkups in 1962; the March on Washington of 1963, the largest political demonstration in the United States to date, was one of the first events to be broadcast live around the world. Howard Zinn, a historian active in the movement, contrasted the "new abolitionists with the original abolitionists of a hundred years earlier": "The present movement...consists mostly of Negroes who make their pleas to the nation more by physical acts of sacrifice than by verbal declamation. Their task is made easier by modern mass communication, for the nation, indeed the whole world, can see them on the television screen or in newspaper photos-marching, praying, singing, demonstrating their message."

Martin Luther King, Jr., made particularly "hot copy." His charismatic leadership style was photogenic and telegenic. King was indeed the most significant leader of a movement that had many leaders, but his primacy was often exaggerated. It was media shorthand to refer to King as the leader, to the movement as "King's movement." His attractiveness to the news media began with his first leadership role, in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, and peaked with his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and with the successful 1965 campaign in Selma.

The movement took advantage of the media's greediness for that most valuable of photographic commodities-the image of extreme violence. The violence that engulfed the movement was sometimes warlike, and for the illustrated press these battles filled a gap between the Korean and Vietnamese Wars. Many civil rights photographs were given prominence in Life magazine. In the 1950s and '60s the weekly issue of Life was the single most important media organ, seen by more than half the adult population of the United States and reaching more people than any television program. Life preferred to present the movement through the iconography of war: uniformed forces, commanders and foot soldiers, armed attacks, the wounded, state funerals, and so on.

Often the images were of booted and helmeted state-employed thugs attacking civilians--an iconography of fascism that shocked many viewers into sympathy for the oppressed. Even more than those from Birmingham, the Selma, Alabama, images of 1965 had this effect. On March 7, 1965, ABC interrupted its prime-time broadcast of the film Judgment at Nuremberg with footage from Selma of state troopers stampeding and beating peaceful marchers. "The hideous parallel between Auschwitz and Selma was obvious, even to the insensitive," wrote Warren Hinkle and David Welsh in Ramparts. "The pictures from Selma were unpleasant; the juxtaposition of the Nazi Storm Troopers and the Alabama State Troopers made them unbearable."

David Garrow's Protest at Selma carefully examines the reactions of the media, the public, and the politicians to the movement's protest strategies. Garrow concludes:

Violence by segregationists, combined with what was generally portrayed and perceived as the movement's generally nonviolent nature and its highly legitimate goals, had the effect both of making the movement appear "extremely virtuous" in comparison to its opponents and of depicting racial segregation as far more brutal than the majority of white Americans previously realized. Needless to say, a very major role in creating those all-important perceptions and reactions among both the society at large and political actors in Washington was played by the media, particularly certain segments of it.

If the movement was a war, then it was a war in which the propaganda offices on both sides played important roles. Both the civil rights organizations and the southern whites who opposed them so vigorously staged media events. Each side kept up a barrage of words and images meant to discomfit their enemies and promote themselves.

The enemies of the movement recognized how the media was being used against them. An Alabama congressman wrote about King: "He went to Selma with the set purpose of breaking the law so that he would be arrested. His love of publicity is above the sacredness of the laws of our land." Southern officials were not long in instituting countermeasures. Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, for example, had one of his deputies photograph protesters and distribute those photos to their employers, which often resulted in the protesters' being fired. Clark was also famous for setting up obstructions specifically to thwart photographers, for threatening and beating photographers, and for other tactics designed to dim the "luminous glare." In a famous bit of film footage, Clark's patience is being tried by a harangue from movement leader Rev. C. T. Vivian.

While Vivian is explaining to Clark why the sheriff is like a Nazi, Clark shouts at a film crew, "Turn off those lights, they're shining in my eyes." They turn them off, then on again. Clark's deputy reaches toward the lens and pushes the cameraman back; immediately thereafter the camera records, shakily, Clark or his deputy punching Vivian in the jaw.

Danny Lyon, a photographer working for SNCC, recorded in his journal a conversation he had with some state troopers in Gadsden, Alabama, on June 27, 1963:

I introduced myself as a photographer working for a quasi-fascist news agency in Chicago, and spent the next few hours in quasi-fascist conversation with the police...(We spoke of mutual friends) You know Forman? [ SNCC executive secretary James Forman] Is he up in Danville [Virginia]?...(I noticed an officer, sitting behind the wheel of his car was going through a pile of photos)...(He said a Birmingham News man was sending him shots. Maybe I could send shots of Danville leaders to check against those in Gadsden?)

This conversation documents how police would use civil rights photographs to identify their enemies. It also demonstrates the kind of ruses used by photographers on both sides to get access and information. Some photographers did indeed function as double agents, working for opposing sides simultaneously.

Both Mississippi and Alabama set up "Sovereignty Commissions"-state agencies empowered to investigate "race mixing" and other real or imagined violations of state segregation laws. The bigger and more famous Mississippi Sovereignty Commission files are currently kept closed (a fight to open them is being waged), but the Alabama Sovereignty Commission files in the state archive in Montgomery are available to scholars. They contain a set of photographs that show how images were crafted to show the movement in a bad light. Pictures were taken at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965 by photographers in the employ of the Alabama Department of Public Safety (the state troopers). These included surveillance photographs as well as pictures connected to one of the main projects of the commission-an antimovement propaganda film that was, in fact, produced and distributed in the mid-sixties. These photographers set out to get "dirt" on the movement, and often they did that in the most literal way: pictures of dirty feet and overflowing trash receptacles. They also focused on what they considered another kind of "dirt"--physical contact between whites and blacks.

Movement organizations were much more creative in their approaches to photography and publicity. SNCC was the most energetic center of media outreach. SNCC's executive director, James Forman, is credited with being the group's publicity genius. In the spring of 1962 he hired Julian Bond, then a Morehouse College student and poet active in the Atlanta sit-ins, to become SNCC's director of communications. The SNCC Communications office, located in the Atlanta headquarters, became a crucial and wide-ranging operation. Bond immediately inaugurated the photographically illustrated Student Voice, SNCC's newsletter. One example of its efficacy: John Lewis (the future chairman of SNCC ) saw in an early issue a Congress of Racial Equality advertisement for the first Freedom Ride and signed himself up.

Bond spoke about the publicity and the fund-raising power of photographs:

Remember a famous photograph-it was in Life magazine and then the New York Times--taken at the Selma March. . . . They've hit John [Lewis, who was leading the march] on the head and he's going down. That picture appeared in the New York Times the day after the beating occurred in a full page [fund-raising] ad for SCLC [the Southern Christian Leadership Conference], and that just burned us up [in SNCC]. If we had had the ability to do it, the technical ability to quickly have a picture taken, fly it to New York, get it in the Times, have the [advertising] copy all ready, or if we'd even thought in that way, we would have done it ourselves...Our anger was directed at the [SCLC] bureaucrats who were there who were sucking money and our publicity, 'cause publicity was money. If you got your name in the New York Times, your organizational name in the New York Times, you could reprint that, send it out to your mailing list and they'd send you some dough.

Besides fund-raising, another important task of the SNCC Communications office was to pressure reporters into covering stories they would otherwise ignore. Mary King, who became second in command of the office, has written about her "hot list" of relatively sympathetic reporters and how hard she worked contacting them. "I spent my days and nights telephoning our field offices or receiving incoming phone calls, and then telephoning the news media to place the stories obtained from our field secretaries. It was normal for me to work seven days a week and from twelve to sixteen hours a day." King also wrote about another role played by the media:

With the exception of those involved at the time, no one knows how important the effective use of the news media was to our safety, and even our lives.

Whenever a field secretary was jailed or a church mass-meeting bombed, whenever night riders struck or firebombings occurred, whenever a local leader's home was shot into, or any other serious act perpetrated, Julian Bond and I went into high gear. The presence of a reporter at a jail or a telephone inquiry from a newspaper was often the only step that let a local sheriff know he was being watched. Our job, in mobilizing the press, was to make local law officers feel that they were under scrutiny, thereby providing a measure of safety for civil rights workers.

Movement organizations courted press photographers and staged media events. But the pictures made by outside photographers were not sufficient--too sparse and too superficial--so movement photography was fostered. As Mary King put it in a 1964 SNCC conference paper: "It is no accident that SNCC workers have learned that if our story is to be told, we will have to write it and photograph it and disseminate it ourselves." This important strategy has been largely ignored; it is never mentioned in any history of photography or of activist or political art.

Movement-originated photographs were both artistic expressions and instruments for organizing. Like the justly famous freedom songs of the movement, they were aids to understanding feelings and strategies, to cementing solidarity, and to spreading the passion. Movement photographs were circulated within the ranks, hung on walls of "freedom houses" and offices, disseminated as posters and in movement publications.

Many civil rights leaders took photographs themselves as an adjunct to their work, including James Forman and Robert Zellner of SNCC, Rev. Wyatt T. Walker and Andrew Young of the SCLC, and Malcolm X. Several progressive groups expressly supported movement photographers, including the SCLC, the National Council of Churches, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Taconic Foundation, and the Highlander Folk School.

SNCC was the prime mover, under the initiative and guidance of James Forman. Not only did Forman recognize the ability of photographs to bear witness as events unfolded, he also spoke about the need to transcribe events for the historical record. Starting with Forman's recruitment of Danny Lyon in 1962, SNCC enlisted and helped train about a dozen photographers. There was a SNCC darkroom in Atlanta and another in Tougaloo, Mississippi. SNCC set up several networks for distributing its pictures and helped support the Southern Documentary Project, which sought to record the cultural and geographic contexts of the movement as well as its dramatic events. SNCC published photographic pamphlets and posters. It organized the first book of civil rights photography (The Movement) and an early exhibition (US, presented in 1967 at the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem).

In 1971 the writer Pat Watters asked John Lewis about mainstream media coverage of the movement. He replied: "Any time there was some violence, we would get a story on television. But when we were involved in in-depth experiences, when people gathered to express feeling, spirit, like in the nonviolent workshops, there was no press. There was seldom an in-depth story on things like when white people really did change."

Movement photography tried to correct this skewed vision of the mainstream press. Danny Lyon's photographs for SNCC succeeded in capturing both the day-to-day grind and the charged spirit of the movement. Lyon was not working on a newsman's deadline. He had time to hang around with people he loved and respected, photographing quiet moments and hot ones. For a while he shared an apartment in Atlanta with SNCC activist John Lewis and Sam Shirah. Lyon has written, "That a black and a white from Alabama and a New York Jew were all close friends and actually lived together says something very important about the cross fertilizations that were going on throughout the movement." Lyon had a photographic vision that went to the heart of his subject without neglecting subsidiary details that convey the specifics of place, era, and personality.

The great photographs of the civil rights movement were crafted with urgent passion-for their own time and for the future. Reappearing now in books and exhibitions, in movies and electronic networks, they make us ask what it is to be white or black in America, to be powerful or powerless or empowered. No other American pictures radiate so brightly a collective passion for justice. These are photographs of participation, collaboration, struggle, and jubilation. The courageous participants in the movement rode and walked the highways together, sat down where they were not invited, danced in the parks and streets, sang on the stairs of power. They were forbidden to do these things, but they did them anyway. Fists and guns were thrust in their faces, clubs and fangs and water cannons punished their bodies, but they did not stop. These people stood up to power and took some of that power for themselves. But since power did not concede willingly, as it never does, many of these pictures are nightmare images of struggle and brutal repression and bereavement. There are pictures in this book that cry out at modern injustice with a disquieting appeal that rivals anything in the canons of modern art.

The black-led civil rights movement was the most momentous social struggle in postwar America. It was a "Second American Revolution" that forced America to reaffirm its democratic ideals and brought to light, as never before, the tunnels of injustice that have always undermined our democracy. The civil rights movement marched our democracy up to a new plateau. It was the model for the subsequent social movements of our era. Its vision and its methods continue to inspire and instruct struggles for justice around the world. "We Shall Overcome," the civil rights anthem, has been sung in recent years in Tiananmen Square, in Leipzig, in Johannesburg.

But the achievements of the civil rights movement fell far short of the racial equality that it envisioned. Racial hierarchies and hysterias continue to tear nation and neighborhood apart. In many ways, things have gotten worse in the United States since the civil rights era. The scandal of American inequality progresses shamelessly. In 1989, 1 percent of the population owned 37 percent of the wealth; 86 percent of the wealth was controlled by 10 percent of the people. In 1992, 33.3 percent of black Americans had incomes below the poverty line, compared to 11.6 percent of whites. African Americans continue to fare worse economically than any other racial group in the United States.

In 1981, in a new introduction to his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison wrote: "So if the ideal of achieving a true political equality eludes us in reality--as it continues to do--there is still available that fictional vision of an ideal democracy in which the actual combines with the ideal and gives us representations of a state of things in which the highly placed and the lowly, the black and the white, the Northerner and the Southerner, and the native-born and the immigrant are combined to tell us of transcendent truths and possibilities."

Such truths and possibilities infuse these photographs of the civil rights movement. They are an essential part of our vision of a true democracy. They are documents that can inspire us to find new ways out of our current morass. We must look at these pictures and feel embarrassment and fear and rage. We must look at them and feel hope. We must look at them to learn new ways to transform our nation.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 6
Introduction: "Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare" 8
1 The Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955: "My Soul Is Rested" 30
2 Little Rock Central High, 1957, and the University of Mississippi, 1962: "Don't Let Them See You Cry" 50
3 Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides, 1960-62: "This Was the Answer" 66
4 The Birmingham Movement, 1963: "I Don't Mind Being Bitten by a Dog" 88
5 The March on Washington, 1963: "We Stood on a Height" 114
6 SNCC and Mississippi, 1960-64: "A Tremor in the Middle of the Iceberg" 132
7 Selma, 1965: "We Must Go to Montgomery and See the King" 162
8 Black Power and the March Against Fear, 1966: "The Oppressed Against the Oppressor" 192
9 The Eclipsing of Nonviolence, 1965-68: "It Is Not Over" 216
Notes and Sources 238
Chronology of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-68 243
Acknowledgments 246
Selected Bibliography 247
Index 250
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2004

    A must read for every American.

    Possibly the most important and emotionally moving book I have ever read. I did not realize how great the struggle of America¿s black population was until I read this book and saw the pictures with my own eyes. Only now can I begin to comprehend why people in the United States continue to face racial divides. By understanding the history in this book we can no doubt create a better future.

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