July marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Yet after half a century of adjustment to a world where such discrimination is illegal, the United States still hasn’t overcome its legacy of racism. Photographs and videos taken in Ferguson, Missouri, during the past few months bear a chilling resemblance to the images of protests, riots, and police clashes in the 1950s and ’60s, when legalized segregation and voter intimidation were still acceptable in much of the country.
“Was this worth risking your life for? After a lot of worrying, I decided that it was.”
Though the technology and methods of dissemination have changed (think “Look” magazine versus Twitter hashtags), photographs continue to distill a moment of lived experience into a powerful message. Police dogs attacking non-violent demonstrators; a black family forced to use the back door at a public restaurant; firehoses turned onto screaming teenagers; jeering white folks pouring honey, ketchup, and milk over the heads of silent protesters. But none of these emblematic photographs would exist without the brave photographers committed to social justice whose efforts at documenting the movement helped it to succeed.
Photographs of the civil rights struggle helped galvanize those outside the South against legalized discrimination, exposing them to the indignities African American citizens suffered under a system of state-backed racism. Some have argued that the most enduring photographs of the movement downplayed the autonomy of black people to make change and shape their own future, portraying them as weak victims who needed white people to save them. However, many images also documented the strength and courage of peaceful protests, showing unwavering black communities united towards a common goal.
Many of the most iconic images of the era were taken by photographers working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), though other organizations, like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), also utilized photographers as part of their mission to eradicate racial inequality. As Leslie Kelen points out in the 2011 book This Light of Ours about photographers of the civil-rights era, individuals documenting the movement “did not then and do not now see themselves primarily as photographers but as ‘activists’ or ‘organizers’ with cameras.” Kelen writes that SNCC “was uniquely farsighted in its usage of photographers and photographs. Soon after its 1960 founding in Raleigh, North Carolina, this student-led organization invited photographers to be an integral part of their communications effort.” For most of these photographers, involvement with various social-justice causes has continued throughout their lives.
Bob Adelman, a photographer who worked for CORE, SNCC, and the NAACP, remembers hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking to a photographer who attempted to intervene in an attack on a protester. “‘We have plenty of demonstrators,’ Doc said. ‘We need photographers.'” Adelman’s first gig was photographing sit-ins and freedom rides on Route 40 as a CORE volunteer, and he was compensated $5 per photo for any usable pictures. In the 1960s, photographs like Adelman’s helped show the injustices of segregation to a wider world that didn’t experience them on a daily basis. “People found it completely unacceptable to see others being hosed or beaten just because they had black skin,” says Adelman. “The photographs were a systematic revelation of the nature of segregation.
“In addition, my photographs were used for fund-raising, since the movement always needed money,” Adelman adds. “Photographs were also used in court cases and in congressional investigations. The Kerner Commission [a group that investigated the 1967 race riots] published a report using these photographs, and they’re now extensively used in school books and history books. They’re a document of the original sin of American life—which was slavery, segregation, and racism.”
Growing up in New York City, Adelman hadn’t witnessed much divisive racism in his youth. “I don’t think most Northerners understood much about segregation,” he explains. “Of course, we heard about lynchings and poll taxes, and we were against all that. I was brought up Jewish, so I knew something about discrimination. As Jimmy Baldwin said, ‘If they take you in the morning, they’ll be coming for us at night.’ But when I was in college, my senior thesis focused on the period after the international slave trade had ended, when there was a lively slave trade between the upper South, where slavery was no longer economically viable, and the lower South. I thought that was just disgusting, so I had strong feelings on the subject of race though I didn’t really know much about it firsthand.”
Considering the centuries of systematic mistreatment of African Americans, and in particular, the decades-long racial conflict in Missouri during the 19th century, the recent murder of Michael Brown and ensuing public protests might come as less of a surprise. While often thought of as a Northern state in the popular consciousness, Adelman points out that Missouri was founded amid racially motivated violence. In 1821, the Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the lands of the Louisiana Territory as well as anywhere north of the Arkansas Territory, with the exception of the newly minted slave-state of Missouri. After the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for “popular sovereignty” (giving residents the chance to vote on whether their territories would enter the Union as free or slave states), Missouri pushed to make Kansas—its western neighbor—a slave-holding state as well.
Missourians fought violently with incoming settlers and abolitionists along this border in what became known as the “Bleeding Kansas” period, though Kansans eventually voted to become a free state when entering the Union in 1861. During the Civil War that followed, Missouri was itself divided: The state established two separate governments, sent troops to support both the Union and Confederate forces, and endured its own intrastate war as neighbors attacked one another for the right to own other humans as property.
More than 150 years later, the state’s racial divisions still run deep. In fact, new research suggests that white and black residents of Ferguson view the town’s recent conflict in precisely opposite ways, with most whites supporting the police department’s tactics and most blacks supporting Michael Brown and the protesters. “Why are people so agitated by this shooting? Because it has a long history,” says Adelman. “A policeman who raises his gun should think a thousand times before he shoots.
“This whole phenomenon is deeply rooted in the American experience,” he continues. “With slavery, of course, it was not unusual for white masters to severely punish or kill slaves, even though they were valuable, because there were no legal consequences. They weren’t human beings under the law; they were only property.” After slavery was outlawed, lynchings became the accepted form of asserting white supremacy, and the tradition that black people were treated as less-than-human continued unabated.
Following the 1897 Supreme Court case known as Plessy v. Ferguson, segregation and Jim Crow laws gave this hierarchy a legal basis that couldn’t be challenged. “Most people think of segregation as a system where blacks and whites were separated or kept apart,” says Adelman, “but it was enforced by terror, either with state-sanctioned violence or by the Klan or whomever. People have forgotten that the reaction in the black community—aside from protests, which was a creative reaction—is that people were constantly terrified. That used to be a mystery to whites, but since 9/11, everybody knows this kind of terror.”
“The worst thing was to be a hero, get arrested, have your camera smashed, and get thrown in jail.”
Although organizations like SNCC supplied photos to both black and white publications, almost all their photographers were white men, which seems surprising for a group promoting integration at all levels of society. “With very few exceptions, we were white,” says Matt Herron, another prominent civil-rights photographer. “It was obviously very dangerous for a black photographer to shoot a demonstration or some public event. Also, to be a freelance photographer in those days, particularly a photojournalist, it required equipment, money, and spare time to teach yourself the craft. Those resources were not generally available to black kids.”
Herron had previously worked for Kodak in Rochester, New York, where he’d become one of Minor White’s students, learning the ins and outs of developing, printing, and photographic aesthetics. Through White, Herron would eventually meet his mentor, Dorothea Lange, who encouraged his interest in social documentary photography. By the early 1960s, Herron was freelancing as a photographer, pitching stories to magazines like “LIFE” and “Look.” “Dorothea convinced me that photography could be not just a profession but a way of life, and that I could marry my social concerns to my desire to be a photographer,” Herron says.
Following in the footsteps of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers of the 1930s, Herron formed the Southern Documentary Project, a group of five photographers dedicated to recording everyday life under segregation. “In the summer of ’64, the five of us traveled throughout the South but mostly in Mississippi, shooting the major events of the Freedom Summer, but also, more broadly, trying to document what black life was like in the South,” says Herron. His most recent book, Mississippi Eyes, tells the story of that tumultuous summer.
Herron points out that even Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal photographer, Bob Fitch, was white. “His job was to shoot all of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) events, make prints, and send them north to black newspapers who couldn’t afford to send their own black photographers in the South to do this. The only black photojournalist I can think of was Frank Dandridge, who I met when we were shooting the aftermath of the church bombing in Birmingham.”
Though they were in the minority, other black photographers were capturing the movement, such as Louis Draper, LeRoy Henderson, and Gordon Parks. Parks began working with the FSA in the 1940s, and eventually became the first black staff photographer at “LIFE” magazine. In 1956, Parks published an influential photo essay on segregation for the magazine, documenting a black family living around Mobile, Alabama, and their daily struggles in a “separate but equal” world.
Curator Sarah Eckhardt, who organized the recent exhibition “Signs of Protest: Photographs from the Civil Rights Era” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, says that photographs like these didn’t just have a galvanizing effect on supporters of equal rights; they also caused a real backlash against those taking and appearing in the images. “One of the things I found fascinating was an interview with the woman in Parks’ photo of the ‘colored entrance’ who said that her sister lost her teaching job and her sister’s husband lost his logging business just for appearing in the photo essay,” Eckhardt says. “It gives you this sense of what it meant to be photographed, because it put you at risk of being run out of the community afterwards, just by being photographed. So the exhibition started with this idea that just being photographed was part of the protest.”
Eckhardt also adds that eventually, Parks insisted that he write some of the text accompanying his photographs, which was especially unusual. “He was very aware of the role that he was playing and how sensitive and complicated that role was,” says Eckhardt. “In 1963, they asked him to do a photo essay on the Black Muslims, and he agreed to do it only if they also allowed him to contribute a portion of the writing. He followed Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X closely for three months and then published an essay called “What Their Cry Means to Me” along with the images. He wanted to publish images with dignity to change the perception of the Black Muslims among the white public.”
Because black staff members were almost nonexistent at mainstream media outlets, publications only selected photographs of the civil-rights struggle that were palatable to white audiences. In the most blatant case, the horrific photos of Emmett Till’s open funeral casket weren’t run by magazines aimed at white readers, while they were printed in the black media. National newsmagazines like “LIFE” were more focused on civil-rights events that involved hundreds or thousands of protesters and incited a certain degree of pushback. “Every coffee table in middle-class America had a copy of ‘LIFE,’ so that was the way you reached a mass audience,” says Herron. “And ‘LIFE’ was very interested in what was going on in the South, but they were concerned with the big events, the marches, the demonstrations, and all of that.”
In contrast, photographers like Herron often wanted to capture more intimate, behind-the-scenes activity that was propelling social change. “The civil-rights activist in me was more concerned about political organizing, or the voter registration in the summer of ’64, or the freedom school projects throughout Mississippi. This was the nitty-gritty of how civil rights moved forward,” says Herron.
Most professional photographers in the 1960s weren’t just white; they were also male. Maria Varela, the first Latina woman to photograph the movement, was encouraged by Herron to take up photography while teaching literacy with SNCC in Alabama. Varela was similarly influenced by the social documentary photography of the 1930s and ’40s, leading her to focus on the ordinary people affected by the movement. “SNCC photographers had a different mission than commercial journalists, albeit our work products at times overlapped,” says Varela. “We felt it important to portray the grassroots leadership rather than the celebrity leaders. Our job was also to put more eyes into the mix to hopefully prevent police violence—sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn’t.”
In addition to systematically deploying photographers, groups like SNCC extensively trained staff members and local supporters in the use of non-violent protest techniques to minimize confrontation with police forces. While such training helped reduce injuries during clashes with local police, they certainly didn’t shield activists from violence. Adelman recalls a confrontation with police while covering a blackout in the South Bronx where people had started looting. “At some point, the police decided to clear the streets, so they phalanxed from one end to the other with their billy clubs out. They’d taken their badges off, and I got great photographs of the police rioting, really.”
Even with his press badge, Adelman was arrested and handcuffed. “When things had calmed down, they gave my cameras back and the cop that was in charge took his billy club and pushed it into my face, just over my eyebrow, so that it cut my skin and I was bleeding,” Adelman continues. “It was animal communication, and I quickly understood that this was very, very dangerous. Was this worth risking your life for? After a lot of worrying, I decided that it was. A very curious thing happens once you accept that—in some way you become fearless because all they can do is kill you.”
“They’re a document of the original sin of American life—which was slavery, segregation, and racism.”
Though white photographers may have had a degree of impunity not afforded African Americans, their lives were still at stake when documenting the civil-rights struggle. One of the most frightening moments Herron remembers was returning to Selma, Alabama, the day after photographer Dave Prince had been brutally beaten. “Selma was ruled by Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, who had a posse of men that enforced segregation with cattle prods, clubs, guns, and anything else,” says Herron. “Prince had been at a mass meeting the night before I arrived, and when the meeting let out, the sheriff’s posse was waiting. They shot at Prince, dragged him to the front of the church, and beat him. They were going to kill him, but the district attorney appeared and told them, ‘Don’t kill him because it’ll be bad publicity for us.’”
Like the non-violent protesters, photographers had their own strategies for staying safe and escaping a confrontation. “We would do anything necessary to get the photos and get out of the scene with camera and film intact,” says Herron. “If I had to use, say, press credentials or pretend to be someone I wasn’t or run from police, all of that was totally acceptable. The worst thing was to be a hero, get arrested, have your camera smashed, and get thrown in jail. Other people were there to be arrested; we were not. That was Rule No. 1.
“Another rule was if everything else fails, take refuge in a black neighborhood,” Herron continues. “More than once, I escaped a riot situation into a black neighborhood and had total confidence that I could demonstrate to the first person I met with a respectful attitude and my accent that I was not a white Southerner. White Southerners didn’t feel safe in black neighborhoods, but we did.
“There was a miasma of fear. You never knew when you were going to be stopped, arrested, beaten. It didn’t happen that often, but the threat was constant. When I went out to shoot, I would strap my cameras on like armor—two Nikons around my neck and one with a long lens hanging at my side. I was a different person; I could go places and do things and take risks because I was very aware that I was photographing history. And that turned out to be a very good instinct.”
Nearly all the photographers working during the Civil Rights Movement were conscious of documenting such seismic change. “I became interested in photography because as a kid, I would sit around at my grandmother’s house and look at old pictures on these stereoscopic viewers,” says LeRoy Henderson, one of the few black photographers of the era. “I was able to see things that had happened long before my time—it was a way to see history. I wanted to contribute something in that same spirit, to create something for people to see later. It sounds lofty, but I honestly remember thinking to myself that I wanted to document my time.”
Henderson grew up in the Washington Park area of Richmond, Virginia, where he was insulated from many of the more violent realities of racial discrimination. “It was such a protective environment; I didn’t know anything about the Klan,” says Henderson. In fact, Henderson recalls several moments in his youth when he refused to back down from white adults, behavior that may have gotten him killed in the deep South. “But the thing is, I wasn’t afraid to do that,” Henderson says, despite the fact that much of Virginia was polarized around the issue of race. “Don’t forget, Prince Edwards County in Virginia closed its schools for two years rather than integrate. The famous art school at the time, called Richmond Professional Institute, which became part of Virginia Commonwealth University, was white-only. I couldn’t go there because I was black.”
Henderson eventually befriended many members of the Kamoinge Collective, a group of African American photographers who joined forces to share and critique each other’s work. The organization also helped build a professional support network in an era when mainstream institutions were explicitly denying them access. Today, Henderson’s son says attends Virginia Commonwealth University where he was barred from enrolling, and the head of its art department is African American. “When my son enrolled, I personally took him to meet the chairman of the art department, a black guy, who was a friend of mine,” he says. “It’s a strange kind of irony.”
“I think we have to continue to believe that the photos will make a difference.”
Regardless of skin color, there were few subjects completely off-limits to civil-rights photographers. Herron says that in Mississippi, the one subject photographers were forbidden from shooting was the attempt to integrate local churches. “That was such a challenge to the Christian consciences of good, pious Southerners: To have integrated groups of people, mostly students, arrested on the front steps of these churches for simply asking to enter the service was so sensitive that the Jackson police and the church deacons and so on absolutely would not allow it to be photographed.” The authorities instituted a ban on photography around these demonstrations, confiscating cameras and film and arresting those in violation.
But Herron was determined to record these highly sensitive events, so while on assignment for “LIFE” magazine, he used an unusual tactic. “I knew a church where there would be an integration attempt the next morning, so on Saturday night, I rented a motel room across the street from the church and spent the night there,” says Herron. “I set up a long lens and a tripod and shot the protest from this darkened hotel room through a crack in the door, and those were the only pictures ever taken of attempts to integrate a church in Jackson, Mississippi.”
Though few were aware of these quiet and effective protests, they had far-reaching implications. “A year later, when Jackson schools were about to be integrated, everybody thought that children would be killed, that there’d be blood in the streets. But there was a group of white Christian women who met regularly, and they prevailed upon the city fathers to create a peaceful integration of Jackson public schools. Unlike other parts of the South, it went peacefully in Jackson, and I think it was largely to do with the church protests.”
Despite the danger, photo-documentarians agree that images of this epic moment helped to shape history. Herron points to a 1963 book of SNCC photography called simply The Movement that instigated change at the highest level. “That book really put civil rights in front of liberals in the North in a way that it hadn’t happened before,” he says. “Charlie Moore’s photographs of the firehoses and police dogs in Birmingham were passed around in Congress in 1964 and had a direct impact on the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Henderson agrees that the photographic evidence of mistreatment by white authorities had a significant impact on the civil-rights struggle. “Look what happened on Bloody Sunday down in Montgomery when that march got out of control,” Henderson says. “The film brought worldwide attention to that moment and had a positive effect.” On March 7, 1965, several hundred protesters gathered to walk from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital of Montgomery. Upon crossing the bridge over the Alabama River, protesters faced a crowd of Alabama state troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the marchers refused, police teargassed the crowd and beat them with their billy clubs, hospitalizing more than 50 people. Film footage and photographs of the attack helped shift public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Movement, accelerating the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voter registration.
Today, a full half-century later, statistics show that by many measures, African Americans are still systematically denied equal opportunities in education, employment, home-ownership, and other areas. “The disparity in wealth, in education, in economic privilege—these issues have never been resolved,” says Herron. Even in America’s most progressive cities, institutionalized racism remains a very real threat. “With the stop-and-frisk law in New York City, I hate to admit it, but when walking on the streets, I was always prepared for any encounter with police,” says Henderson. “That’s extra stress you have to live with, just the awareness that you could be interrogated.”
Shifts in technology and the weakening of legacy media brands have given us millions more images to choose from. Instead of carefully edited photo essays in “LIFE,” we have viral videos making the rounds on YouTube. “If the civil-rights archive seems daunting to parse your way through, how much more are we going to have from modern events like those in Ferguson?” asks Eckhardt. “How many will just disappear because they’re digital and there won’t be a stable way to store them? I hope that it remains a part of our consciousness, but it’s hard to know how we will tell this history given the media we’re using right now.”
Many photographers see this proliferation of cameras and imagery as vital to saving lives and preventing abuses of police power. “During the Civil Rights Movement, which I consider the last battles of the Civil War, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were finally enacted and made viable,” says Adelman. “There were known acts of violence against people like Medgar Evers, heroic leaders who were murdered, but God knows how many other people were killed. I would be in these Southern towns, and some bones would wash up on the river bank. How many people were killed that we don’t know about, all over the country?”
In Adelman’s eyes, photo-documentation was key to bringing legal action against Ku Klux Klan members and prejudiced police departments. “Whenever a black person stood up in some way or didn’t follow the prescribed rules of segregation by trying to vote or drink at a fountain or sit at a counter, the response was terrorism,” says Adelman. “This led to the new form of lynching, which is when white authority figures or policemen shoot unarmed blacks with impunity. The whole mechanism still depends on using terror to control people.”
Justice will likely never come for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, and many others recently killed by authority figures. But with police forces around the country considering mandatory body cameras and courts relying on cell-phone camera imagery as evidence, photography is pushing a new wave of changes to our justice system. A class-action lawsuit has been filed against local officials in Ferguson for their mistreatment of citizens in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting. Would this have been possible without the legions of amateur photographers capturing these events on digital devices?
“I think we have to continue to believe that the photos will make a difference,” says Henderson. “I think the Ferguson scene is going to be a game changer—at least I hope so.”
(For more civil rights photography, read “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement” and Matt Herron’s “Mississippi Eyes,” or visit the High Museum in Atlanta to see “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” between Nov. 15, 2014, and June 6, 2015. Special thanks to Bob Adelman, Sarah Eckhardt, LeRoy Henderson, Matt Herron, Mrs. Monica Karales, and Maria Varela.)