Seeing through Race is a boldly original reinterpretation of the iconic photographs of the black civil rights struggle. Martin A. Berger’s provocative and groundbreaking study shows how the very pictures credited with arousing white sympathy, and thereby paving the way for civil rights legislation, actually limited the scope of racial reform in the 1960s. Berger analyzes many of these famous images—dogs and fire hoses turned against peaceful black marchers in Birmingham, tear gas and clubs wielded against voting-rights marchers in Selma—and argues that because white sympathy was dependent on photographs of powerless blacks, these unforgettable pictures undermined efforts to enact—or even imagine—reforms that threatened to upend the racial balance of power.
Foreword by David J. Garrow
Introduction: The Iconic Photographs of Civil Rights
1. The Formulas of Documentary Photography
2. White Shame, White Empathy
3. Perfect Victims and Imperfect Tactics
4. The Lost Images of Civil Rights
Epilogue: The Afterlife of Images
List of Illustrations
Martin A. Berger is Professor and Director of the Visual Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood and Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture, both from UC Press. David J. Garrow is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“Seeing Through Race is an indispensable and highly original account of how white Americans understood and remembered the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Berger shows us why photography was so central to civil rights, and his readings of iconic images are always penetrating and at times brilliant. His central argument, that whites wanted to be in charge of the movement, is complemented with rich insights on almost every page. It should be required reading for anyone interested in protest movements.”
—John Stauffer, Chair of the History of American Civilization and Professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University
“The fervor of the 1960s civil rights movement may seem outdated by now, but terrible scenes enacted on the streets of Selma and Birmingham are preserved in the mass of surviving news photographs. Martin Berger argues that these pictures were never simple visual documents. By awakening the nation to the horrific violence of fire hoses and attack dogs, they defined what was meant by “civil rights movement.” Always engaging in its narrative as well as in its analytical and theoretical discourse, Seeing through Race is a stunning achievement both as history and as criticism.”
—Alan Trachtenberg, Neil Gray, Jr. Professor Emeritus of English and American Studies at Yale University
CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, American Library Association
The Formulas of Documentary Photography
"I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate."Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)
Early in the winter of 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met quietly with a group of prominent civil rights activists to discuss prospects for a major protest in Birmingham, Alabama. During the previous year, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had experienced a discouraging setback at Albany, Georgia, where more than a year of antisegregationist protests had failed to wring any concessions from the local white establishment. King was determined not to repeat the mistakes of that campaign. Advocates of a Birmingham protest were cheered by what they judged to be the city's favorable conditions for a successful campaign. Not only did they have a strong supporter in Fred Shuttlesworth, a prominent local clergyman and the most important black civil rights leader in Birmingham, but they also had a perfect adversary in the city's public safety commissioner, Eugene "Bull" Connor, one of the most confrontational elected officials in the South.
King believed that the Albany campaign had faltered, in part, because of the media savvy displayed by the city's police chief, Laurie Pritchett. The chief publicly styled himself as a thoughtful and moderate man who met the nonviolence of civil disobedience with his own brand of "nonviolent" law enforcement. This stance made him popular with the white northern reporters assigned to cover the campaign. As a result, the ensuing media coverage was not as sympathetic to the aims of the protestors as King had hoped. Keenly aware that blacks did not wield sufficient political or economic power to end segregation and promote equal opportunity without the support of white allies, King worked hard to organize peaceful protests in Birmingham that would garner sympathetic press coverage and prick the consciences of liberal whites in the North. Because most Americans lived in segregated communities, media coverage of black protests provided a rare opportunity for activists to make visible to a national white audience the day-to-day injustices-and routine violence-that blacks encountered. In contrast to Pritchett's restraint and pleasant disposition, Connor's coarseness, penchant for brutality, and appetite for media attention gave King an opening to create visually arresting scenes that could crystallize for whites the stakes of the struggle.
The Birmingham campaign began on April 3 when a few dozen student protestors from Miles College, a local black institution, initiated sit-ins at downtown department store lunch counters. In a process that had become familiar throughout the South since the famous Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins in 1960, protestors would occupy a "whites only" lunch counter in a department store, be denied service, stoically weather verbal or physical harassment from hostile white onlookers, and typically face arrest. King used publicity of the first sit-in arrests in Birmingham to advertise six specific goals that SCLC sought for the city: desegregation of local stores, adoption of fair-hiring practices by local merchants, dismissal of charges against protestors from prior demonstrations, provision of equal employment opportunities for blacks within city government, reopening and desegregation of municipal recreation facilities, and establishment of a biracial committee to further desegregate the city. In the days that followed, the protests grew, with black residents carrying out peaceful daily marches and a boycott of local merchants. The orderly sit-ins and marches were designed to reap national media attention; the boycotts aimed to place economic pressure on the local business community during the normally busy Easter shopping season in the hope that prominent store owners would encourage city leaders to make concessions.
A month into the protest, however, white city and business leaders were holding strong, refusing to negotiate with the protest leaders despite some unflattering (if limited) coverage of the city in the national press and a significant drop-off in business for the downtown stores. Many white residents hoped to wait out the protests, their intransigence rooted in their comfort with the racial status quo and nurtured by the deteriorating bargaining position of the civil rights protestors. By the beginning of May, thousands of black marchers were sitting in overcrowded jails, liberal-leaning white clergy members in Birmingham had openly criticized King in the press for creating conditions that stymied negotiations, protest organizers were having difficulty recruiting new marchers willing to face arrest, and most disturbingly to the SCLC, reporters were starting to lose interest in the campaign and were leaving town. As King remarked to a confidant, "We've got to pick up everything, because the press is leaving."
To "pick up" the protest, organizers made the controversial decision to allow students-drawn from local high, middle, and even elementary schools-to take part in marches. Appreciating how few adults remained willing to volunteer for arrest, as well as the need to maintain community and media interest, James Bevel, the twenty-seven-year-old director of direct action and nonviolent education for the SCLC, proposed the recruitment of children into the movement. He and Diane Nash had for weeks been working quietly with local students, holding workshops to impress upon them their power to bring about reform and to teach them the practical skills to stage effective protest actions. Without immediately committing to the plan, SCLC leaders agreed to let interested young people attend a meeting at the spiritual and organizational center of Birmingham's black community, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, at noon on May 2. Struck by the strong student turnout and by the obvious enthusiasm of the city's black youths, King acquiesced to the participation of children, despite the reservations of many SCLC leaders and Birmingham parents.
On the afternoon of May 2, adult leaders took to the street with wave after wave of singing children, cheered on by hundreds of black adults who flanked their route. The "Children's Crusade" had begun. By the end of the day, five hundred young marchers had been carted off to jail, many still singing and waving their civil rights placards. Birmingham was now in the national news. The next day, May 3, events in the city became of international interest. Connor was unable to make further arrests because his jails were overflowing, but he remained unwilling to allow the protestors to march on city hall or pray in the streets. Frustrated that he had no place to put additional prisoners and determined to shut down all forms of black protest, Connor gave orders to disperse peaceful, unarmed protestors with German shepherd police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses. The ensuing spectacle recorded by newspaper, magazine, and television photographers and cameramen-of women in their Sunday dresses knocked off their feet by high-pressure water jets and well-dressed men peacefully standing their ground while mauled by dogs-brought the movement precisely the publicity it desired. As a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune noted, the resulting photographs were the most "gripping" images of the civil rights struggle to date. Although the protests would continue and grow for another week, the storm of publicity generated by the inflammatory photographs and news stories about the events of May 3 brought reluctant business and city leaders to the negotiating table and ultimately provided King with one of his most celebrated victories.
Observers in the 1960s and historians in the decades since have consistently credited news photographs of attack dogs and water hoses in Birmingham with wielding a unique power over white America. They laud the images for generating sympathy among northern white liberals for the plight of black protestors in the South, for hardening northern resolve against the excesses of the racist Jim Crow system, and for providing President Kennedy and Congress with the political cover to push through long-stalled civil rights legislation. As King wrote about photography's importance, in his book on the Birmingham struggle, Why We Can't Wait (1964), "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."
Echoing King's assessment, the presidential advisor and historian Arthur Schlesinger noted, "On Saturday, May 4, newspapers across the United States and around the world saw a shocking photograph of a police dog lunging at a Negro.... Ordinary citizens, complacent in their assumptions of virtue, were for a season jerked into guilt and responsibility. Bull Connor's police dogs accused the conscience of white America in terms which could no longer be ignored." In the aftermath of Birmingham, the liberal television commentator Eric Sevareid declared that Negroes "have caught up the conscience of the whole people.... A newspaper or television picture of a snarling police dog set upon a human being is [now] recorded in the permanent photoelectric file of every human brain." Andrew Young, one of King's chief lieutenants, even claimed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was effectively "written in Birmingham."
In the ensuing decades, historians have only amplified such assessments. The photographic historian Vicki Goldberg writes of the photographs' "immediate and stunning impact. By May 1963 it was impossible to be unaware of southern racism.... The photographs gave this abstraction a visible image." According to the historian Taylor Branch, "News photographs of the violence seized millions of distant eyes, shattering inner defenses." And he ultimately concludes, "Never before was a country transformed, arguably redeemed, by the active moral witness of schoolchildren." Referencing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the journalist and historian Diane McWhorter has written, "If our history texts listed Uncle Tom's Cabin among the four major causes of the Civil War, so had the photograph of the police dog lunging at the black boy been a factor in the Emancipation Proclamation of the twentieth century."
Virtually every commentator notes a link between photographs that visualize for whites the realities of black life and the promotion of social and political reform. It is assumed that the "truth" of the photographic evidence compelled whites to embrace more racially progressive views. That incidents of state-sponsored brutality against peaceful citizens would galvanize support for reform once they were "caught ... in gigantic circling spotlights," makes sense, yet the reality is more complex. Many media reports of police violence against blacks failed to elicit a reaction from whites. Dogs had been sicced on peaceful black marchers supporting sit-in protestors in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1961 (figure 6); on demonstrators supporting voting rights in Greenwood, Mississippi, in March 1963; and on civil rights march spectators during the opening phase of the Birmingham campaign in April of that year. But white newspaper reports of these earlier dog attacks had been met with white public indifference, even when they were illustrated with stark photographs of the assaults. Moreover, although the infamous May 1963 photographs of rampaging dogs in Birmingham did generate a storm of controversy, they left many whites unsympathetic to the plight of black protestors. In the weeks following the publication of the photographs in newspapers and magazines throughout the country, letters-to-the-editor pages swelled with commentary condemning Birmingham's officials and praising its black residents, but almost as many of the printed letters lauded police "restraint" and criticized black "violence."
Time magazine published an extensive May 17 article on the Birmingham campaign, "Races: Freedom-Now," illustrated with a photograph of a black youth "felled" on a roadway by a hose (figure 7), a black woman "manhandled" by arresting officers (see figure 46), and a dapper Connor with tie and straw hat overseeing his men. In response, readers flooded the magazine with comments. One praised the self-control of the city's police. He asked the editors approvingly, "What other police force would abstain from raw use of force when hundreds of screaming, shouting demonstrators charged down the most crowded sidewalks knocking down anyone who got in their way?" Despite the photographic evidence in Time, a letter writer from Birmingham insisted that the magazine had "given an unjust image of the citizens of Birmingham" and added, "We would not stand for such brutality against anyone." In response to an eleven-page photographic essay in Life with graphic depictions of Connor's dogs and fire hoses in action, a New Jersey reader explained, "A mob is ... an engine of destruction.... The [Birmingham] police know that and they also know that the best cure is to break it into small groups. The easiest and most merciful way to do this is with a fire hose." A second Life reader wrote, "It is such a shame that Negroes who could be out earning money and, in some cases, respect, are participating in such things as the Birmingham violence.... All they can think of is violence."
Although we might be tempted to dismiss such sentiments as outliers, based on our modern view that the writers were on the "wrong" side of history, the number of such claims in the early 1960s counters the notion that the "truth" of the photographic evidence was obvious and that such truths necessarily prompted racially progressive responses in whites. Given that many whites saw "restraint" in the images of firemen who pummeled marchers with high-pressure jets, while others saw only "brutality," we must appreciate that the photographs operated in more complex ways than are readily apparent today. The meanings ascribed to the photographs, and the attitudes and actions they promoted, were clearly produced in part by contextual factors outside the photographic image.
To understand how the photographs moved many millions of moderate and liberal whites in the 1960s, consider the most widely circulated account of the Birmingham conflict-the aforementioned photographic essay in Life, which the magazine published on May 17, 1963, under the title "The Spectacle of Racial Turbulence in Birmingham: They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out" (figure 8). The essay is a key document of the era, because many of its thirteen photographs, taken by the southern white photographer Charles Moore, quickly assumed status as iconic images of the civil rights struggle. Moore's stark photographs of Birmingham became as famous as those of the Little Rock Nine being pursued by mobs outside the previously segregated Little Rock Central High School (see figure 40), dignified lunch counter protestors weathering verbal abuse and physical attacks in Jackson (figure 9), shell-shocked Freedom Riders clustered around their firebombed bus near Aniston (see figure 2), and, in time, those of peaceful marchers absorbing the blows of police batons at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (see figure 1). With nearly nineteen million paid subscribers at a time when the U.S. population was just over 180 million, Life was the largest-circulation news source and among the most influential periodicals of the early 1960s.
Many of Moore's photographs of police dogs, fire hoses, arrests, and demonstrations stand today as visual shorthand for the civil rights movement and are consequently reproduced with little explanatory text. In the first blush of the conflict, when their meanings were still in flux, Life reproduced the photographs with copious descriptive copy. On a two-page spread (figure 10) that displays a sequence of three photographs of a well-dressed black man being mauled by a lunging police dog, Life explained, "With vicious guard dogs the police attacked the marchers-and thus rewarded them with an extreme outrage that would win support all over the world for Birmingham's Negroes. If the Negroes themselves had written the script, they could hardly have asked for greater help for their cause than ... Connor freely gave. Ordering his men to let white spectators come near, he said: 'I want 'em to see the dogs work.'" The caption notes that this "brutal" scene "is the attention-getting jack pot of the Negroes' provocation."
This description juxtaposes the portrayals of whites who "fight" and "attack" with those of blacks who require "help" and are "brutalized." The text guides the reader's interpretation by suggesting a contrast between the activity of brutal white policemen and the inactivity of peaceful black marchers. It suggests that white actions served blacks better than anything the activists themselves might have "scripted." That the article focuses on the subject of white agency is apparent even in its subtitle-"They Fight a Fire That Won't Go Out"-which frames whites as the scene's active players, waging a metaphoric battle against the black "fire" with their water hoses. Echoing the coverage in Life, mainstream media outlets routinely cast black Birmingham protestors as the hapless victims of violent whites. They reported on youths hit with firemen's hoses as "flattened," "sent sprawling," "spun ... head over heels," "sitting passively," "swept along the gutter by a stream of water," "cut ... down like tenpins," or "flung ... into the air like sodden dolls," some with their clothing "ripped off." A white Birmingham native recalled how Connor's fire hoses sent black "arms and legs ... jerking like those of puppets on a string [and] bodies cartwheeling across the grass like scraps of paper caught in the wind." The consistent ascription of such traits to whites and blacks is the most important frame in white media accounts of civil rights.
Even when white reporters made a conscious effort to communicate the "determination and courage" of Birmingham's black activists, their stories invariably reproduced a picture of black inactivity. Time's May 17 coverage of the Birmingham campaign opened with the following description: "Birmingham's Negroes had always seemed a docile lot. Downtown at night, they slouched in gloomy huddles beneath street lamps, talking softly or not at all. They knew their place: they were 'Niggers' in a Jim Crow town, and they bore their degradation in silence. But last week they smashed that image forever." The article's framing paragraph establishes the docile "before" picture of Birmingham's blacks and sets the stage for the dramatic "after," which "smashed" the old image forever. In the next paragraph, the reporter explains, "The scenes in Birmingham were unforgettable. There was the Negro youth sprawled on his back and spinning across the pavement, while firemen battered him with streams of water so powerful that they could strip bark off trees. There was the Negro woman pinned to the ground by cops, one of them with his knee dug into her throat." And farther down the page, Time noted, "For more than a month, Negro demonstrators in Birmingham had sputtered, bursting occasionally into flames, then flickering out."
So how has the image of black residents changed in the aftermath of the protests? Blacks had emerged from the nighttime shadows into daylight to interact with whites; whereas they had previously stood quietly on streets, they were now sprawled across them. In the eyes of the white media, blacks had merely traded their "docile" victimization in the dark for a new kind of subjugation in the light. Once again, in the language in the article, white firemen "batter" and white police "pin" and "manhandle" blacks, who are sent "sprawling" and "spinning" along the ground and who ultimately "sputter out." Despite Time's promise of a "new" image for blacks, it simply delivered a more dramatic spectacle of their victimization. The white photographers and journalists who descended on Birmingham could have reported the evidence of black agency in the organization and staging of massive protest marches and consumer boycotts and pointed up white agency in the violent efforts to suppress such acts of protest. Yet, with the options of reporting on black actions, white actions, or some combination of the two, they consistently narrated the "story" of Birmingham as the white suppression of blacks.
During the 1960s, keen observers recognized the penchant of the mainstream media to foreground white agency in their coverage of the civil rights struggle. The veteran television and print journalist Paul Good commented on the steady diet of white-on-black violence-"tales of Southern goons brutalizing black men, women, and children"-that white newspapers and television stations fed their audiences in the early 1960s. He noted that popular magazines, "like Life or The Saturday Evening Post ... were obtuse in their editorial understanding and superficial in their handling of civil rights stories." Danny Lyon, an early staff photographer for SNCC who spent years photographing protests from the perspective of activists, was struck by the degree to which the northern press confined its reporting to the actions of whites. He commented that white reporters gravitated toward "the drama of a bus getting bombed or a [white] riot at Ole Miss." That such stories scripted particular roles for blacks and whites is dramatized by the instructions given to one television news cameraman in the early 1960s. As the cameraman recalled, his editor made clear that "the Klan didn't scare him and that I should get a shot of them burning a cross in front of a Negro's house. Says he'd like the Negro on his knees begging and the Klan should have their pillow cases [on] ... and in color yet."
How far editors were willing to go to acquire the desired shots of a "Negro on his knees" is illustrated by a rare newspaper production photograph from the New York World-Telegraph and Sun preserved at the Library of Congress (figure 11). A United Press International photograph of black spectators watching the chaotic aftermath of the Ku Klux Klan's bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in September 1963 retains an editor's grease-pencil crop marks above the head and below the shin of the boy on his knees. The lower bodies of the two figures directly behind the boy have been airbrushed out and the figures on the left cropped, so that the image of the boy praying in isolation could illustrate an article published in the paper on September 16. In removing the four standing figures-and any ambiguity of meaning conveyed by their facial expressions, gestures, and poses-the manipulated image delivers a resonant message of blacks brought to their knees by the violence inflicted by whites. As we'll see, the white penchant for spectacle, comfort reporting from the perspective of white actors, and even their liberal politics, led white reporters and editors to downplay the bravery and accomplishments of blacks as they conjured a fantasy of black passivity in the face of white aggression.
Ironically, the violent whites who appeared in news accounts of Birmingham were ultimately cast as agents of progressive social change, despite their obvious desire to preserve the racial status quo. In contrast to much nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century imagery, wherein whites were the agents of social changes they supported, the photographs and articles chronicling Birmingham consistently depicted southern whites as forceful actors who inadvertently promoted changes they were determined to prevent. This view typified northern whites' response to the civil rights struggle in the South. In a meeting with civil rights leaders in the White House Cabinet Room in June 1963, President Kennedy remarked to the assembled group that Bull Connor "has done more for civil rights than almost anybody else." David Halberstam, well known for his coverage of and sympathy for the black freedom struggle, claimed in 1967, "In retrospect it was not so much Martin Luther King who made the movement go, it was Bull Connor; each time a bomb went off, a head smashed open, the contributions would mount at King's headquarters."
On the flip side, the previously quoted whites who wrote letters to the editor to condemn black marchers (and praise white officials) consistently highlighted black action in their arguments, characterizing protestors as a "screaming" mob that "charged down ... sidewalks knocking down anyone who got in [its] way" and as an "engine of destruction," fixated on "violence." Whites who favored extending greater civil rights to blacks reflexively cast blacks as a people acted upon, whereas whites who rejected the civil rights project tended to see blacks as a force exerting power over whites. Even though progressive and reactionary whites, respectively, supported distinct social agendas, each group showed allegiance to a value system that understood disempowerment as the "normal" role for nonwhites. In trying to depict black protestors sympathetically, progressive whites described them as inactive, which in the racial logic of the day equaled normal and safe. On the other side of the political continuum, reactionary whites described the same black protestors as active, knowing that such a description would signal to other whites the abnormality of assertive blacks.
Even as the photographs of Birmingham in the mainstream press recorded distinctive acts of protest, most shared a view of white-black relations that contrasted the restraint and disengagement of black protestors with the violent aggression of white attackers. This contrast was not unique to the coverage of the Birmingham campaign. It served as the gatekeeper in policing the eligibility of images for inclusion in the canon of civil rights photographs. Although white press photographers in Birmingham did produce images suggesting alternative roles for whites and blacks, these images gained little traction with whites in the North.
At the foot of the final page of Moore's essay in Life (figure 12), the editors reproduced a tightly cropped detail of a much larger photograph that shows smiling young marchers seeking to shame a policeman sitting astride his motorcycle, billy club in hand, to watch the crowd. The version reproduced in Life tamps down all signs of white control by cropping out the club, thereby making the line of black youths the scene's most threatening figures. In the caption, Life described a "jeering mob waggling their fingers [to] taunt police." When the Washington Post made its first report on Birmingham after the dramatic use of dogs and fire hoses, it published four photographs of the conflict, two illustrating blacks in classic inactive poses-absorbing the force of a fireman's hose and suffering the bite of a police dog-and two showing blacks in more active roles-goading a leashed police dog by waving a jacket like a matador's cape and lunging to "attack" one of the dogs with a knife (figures 13 and 14). "Active" images of "jeering" mobs and "attacking" men, although reproduced in a handful of white magazines and newspapers in the days immediately following the events and well known to historians today, quickly dropped from northern white media accounts in the 1960s and have effectively vanished from present-day photographic histories of civil rights.
In the visual representation of Birmingham, even the most radical whites in the early 1960s displayed a racial conservatism drawn directly from the mainstream press. Andy Warhol, in his iconoclastic battle against abstract expressionism, created narrative prints and paintings of Birmingham for his Race Riot series, illustrating police dogs on the attack (figure 15). We know from a surviving two-page photographic spread that Warhol ripped from a magazine and annotated with instructions to his studio assistants that his source for the series was Moore's photographs from Life (figure 16). Ignoring published images that spoke unequivocally to whites of black agency, Warhol selected the photographs that most succinctly articulated a safe narrative of peaceful, victimized blacks. Given that the artist indiscriminately referred to the dog-attack pictures from Birmingham as both his "Montgomery" and "Selma" pictures, he was apparently more interested in the racial dynamic they displayed than in the specifics of the campaign. For well-meaning whites-whether reporters, editors, or artists-photographs that too obviously illustrated active blacks and inactive whites held scant allure.
The broader photographic record of the civil rights era neatly reproduces the dynamic evident in the coverage of Birmingham: the iconic images of the struggle, which overwhelmingly depict blacks as the victims of history, coexist with more marginal photographs, which illustrate empowered blacks. Such iconic photographs include the aforementioned confrontations over voting rights and the integration of schools and lunch counters but also well-known photographs of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted in 1956 (figure 17); King being roughed up during his arrest in 1958 (figure 18); scores of limp protestors being dragged from streets, courthouse steps, and bus stations; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of James Meredith after being shot during his 1966 Mississippi March Against Fear (figure 19). Among the circulating photographs that depict strong, active blacks are many dozens of striking images of protest marches (figure 20), Martin Luther King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech to hundreds of thousands of listeners on the Washington Mall (figure 21), and the sea of dignified sanitation workers in Memphis holding their famous "I AM A MAN" placards (figure 22).
However, even the well-known images of empowerment were frequently circumscribed by racial dynamics seen more readily in photographs featuring white-on-black violence. In Bob Adelman's photograph of King, the civil rights leader strikes a powerful pose as he gestures toward the sky against the colossal columns of the Lincoln Memorial behind him. But the speech immortalized by the photograph was lauded in the 1960s (and is popularly revered today) for its recollection of a "dream." In the snippets of the address most commonly recalled by whites, King does not remake the world but simply dreams of a more perfect order to come. As the historian Drew Hansen has documented, many progressive blacks in the 1960s criticized the speech for its failure to articulate a concrete program for change and for its reliance on stirring rhetoric they deemed empty.
The student activist Anne Moody spoke for many more radical blacks who attended the March on Washington when she lamented having "sat on the grass and listened to the speakers, to discover we had 'dreamers' instead of leaders leading us." Hansen documents the appeal of the speech, in its vagueness and general invocation of hope rather than action, to white politicians who supported civil rights. In contrast to the speech of John Lewis, the chairman of SNCC, who presented a searing indictment of the structure of American society, King's appeal seemed safe. Few pictures of John Lewis on the podium in Washington circulated in the white press, because whites had no inclination in 1963 to linger on his call to action: "The revolution is at hand, and we must free ourselves of the chains of political and economic slavery.... We will not wait for the courts to act, for we have been waiting for hundreds of years. We will not wait for the President, the Justice Department, nor Congress, but we will take matters into our own hands and create a source of power, outside of any national structure." For most whites in the 1960s, Adelman's photograph was appealing because of its depiction of a patient King who would wait for social changes brought about by well-meaning whites.
Ernest Withers's photograph of the sanitation strike in Memphis is similarly well known today and equally complex. It records black workers' mass walkout in February 1968 to protest discriminatory treatment and life-threatening working conditions. The photograph presents an orderly assembly of men who form a human wall blocking the street. The strikers grip hundreds of identical protest signs that mark a strong horizontal band across the composition. With their disparate clothing and physiques, the men are united by their black skin and their clear declaration of shared identity-as men. The poignant assertion of humanity (and manhood) invokes the inscription on the antislavery medallion designed by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787 (figure 23), which he in turn modeled after the seal of the English Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade of that year. Wedgwood's supplicant slave, who asks, on bended knee, "Am I not a man and a brother?" was a ubiquitous emblem of emancipation in the nascent United States that tugged at the emotions of whites. Withers's photograph is affecting, but realization that the strikers' assertion of identity is rooted in eighteenth-century debates on the humanity of nonwhites should give readers pause. The workers' forceful affirmation of our shared humanity is ultimately undercut by their need to make such a claim in the late twentieth century.
The difficulties posed to whites by representations of unambiguously powerful blacks were laid bare by the white reaction to John Dominis's photograph of John Carlos and Tommie Smith's 1968 Olympic protest in Mexico City (see figure 61). Whereas images of abused students and beaten marchers spoke fluently to northern whites of racial injustice, the athletes' Olympic protest did not. After placing first and third, respectively, in the men's 200-meter race, each athlete mounted the medal stand with an Olympic Project for Human Rights button pinned to his track jacket, black socks displayed prominently by shoeless feet and rolled pant legs, and a single black glove. After receiving their medals, the men pivoted toward the rising flags and, as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played, each raised a black-gloved fist in the air and lowered his head. As the pair stood motionless on the stand, the scene was captured in black-and-white by press photographers and in color by television cameramen and quickly circulated around the world.
At a press conference following the ceremony, and in a television interview the next day with Howard Cosell, Smith patiently explained that the athletes' shoeless feet and black socks called attention to the poverty of black Americans and the raised gloved fists stood for black unity and pride. Like the photographs of the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, this photograph showed blacks engaged in a silent, peaceful demonstration that sought to bring to the attention of national and international audiences the social and economic inequalities suffered by blacks. Life magazine, describing Smith and Carlos just after their Olympic protest, acknowledged, "They are not separatists. They do not believe in violence. They are dedicated to ... gaining dignity and equality for all black people." Yet the photograph ignited furious debate in white America-about the propriety of the athletes' actions rather than the issues they sought to address. The failure of the protest to engage most whites on issues of poverty and racism resulted directly from the athletes' tactics. The Olympians pointed to suffering without exemplifying it and, more scandalously, delivered their message from a position of power. Even today, the image is most frequently reproduced under the heading of "Black Power," rather than "Civil Rights," as if power and rights are somehow opposed (see chapter 4 for more on this photograph). In the 1960s, photographs that made the agency of blacks all too obvious diminished the odds of reaching otherwise sympathetic whites.
The degree of distress that Smith and Carlos's peaceful and lawful protest stirred up in whites suggests the challenges blacks faced in crafting demonstrations to make visible long-ignored problems and prompt sympathy in whites. Blacks who hoped to reach whites through protest had to navigate a narrow range of "acceptable" actions, as is evident in the distinctive white responses to the civil rights protests of Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. The Selma campaign sought to highlight the high percentage of qualified blacks systematically disenfranchised in Dallas County, register willing voters, and push the federal government to become more involved in voting rights issues. As in Birmingham, it began quietly, with protest marchers and pray-ins that garnered limited media attention; it became headline news only after the spectacle of "Bloody Sunday" in the spring of 1965.
The historian David J. Garrow provides a detailed comparison of the white reaction to the two campaigns. He notes that the Selma protests produced vastly more sympathy for blacks among whites and led to significantly greater legislative action in Congress. Not only did Selma receive greater media coverage, but news outlets focused more on the peacefulness of the protestors and on the justness of their cause. The press coverage of the Birmingham campaign was generally sympathetic but gave little attention to King's demands, showing more interest in the spectacle of violence than in the roots of the conflict. Garrow attributes the more favorable response of the white public and Congress to the Selma protest to three main factors: Selma had just one, clearly articulated aim, voter registration, in contrast to the six goals of the Birmingham campaign; to many whites, voter registration seemed a more basic, less threatening, and more inalienable right than desegregated lunch counters or better job opportunities; and most important, while press reports of Birmingham often mentioned that some of the city's blacks engaged in violence (such as the knife-wielding man in figure. 14), those from Selma rarely did.
Garrow concludes that "while the [white] outrage at law-enforcement tactics at Selma was magnified further by the blacks' own commendable conduct, at Birmingham the perceived conduct of the blacks served to reduce the quantity and intensity of the outrage generated by the use of dogs and hoses." He explains white reaction as largely a function of an American political culture that condemns violence, specifically that against peaceful victims. Garrow's thoughtful analysis of the two campaigns provides a guide to the "perfect" black protest but also hints at the severe limitations black activists faced. Given the depictions of inactive versus active roles in the photographic record, the fact that whites were more sympathetic, and more willing to act legislatively, after Selma seems unremarkable, in light of the marchers' even-greater display of "appropriately" passive roles than their compatriots in Birmingham. But considering that Garrow ultimately sees only slight differences between the black performances at Birmingham and Selma, the two campaigns seen in tandem point at once to the power and the limitations of black protest. While pictures of black passivity were key to generating sympathy among whites and, consequently, to pushing through legislative reform, they also limited the types of protests blacks could stage and the reforms they could demand if they wished to maintain white support. Birmingham and Selma each gave a victory to the civil rights movement because each campaign adhered to a script written for blacks by whites. To deviate from that script in 1960s America was a sure way for blacks to lose white support.
I posited at the start of this chapter that photographs of the civil rights struggle contain no agreed-upon "truths." They offer a record of specific people interacting at particular times and places; in this sense, they contain facts about the material world. But they say little about social realities, about which we care much more. The comments and reactions that the photographs elicited from viewers in the 1960s reveal that Americans looked to civil rights photographs to see who was the victim and who was the aggressor and to determine whose cause was just. On these issues, the photographs provide no ready answers, notwithstanding what viewers imagined.
The narratives Americans read in photographs were produced by external cues such as captions, text, and photographic juxtapositions but also by internal factors such as the racial values that individuals brought with them to the images. The specific events captured on film surely played a role in guiding viewer responses, but they, perhaps surprisingly, were of secondary importance to these other frames in establishing the social significance of photographs. We can see this phenomenon at work in the many misreadings of photographs, whose subject matter and media framing combined with viewers' political predispositions to overpower the visible evidence of the images. Scenes of Birmingham's nonviolent protestors could appear to be more violent, as a group, because of narratives circulating in society about the violence of the city's blacks, but particular images of physically assertive blacks could be made to seem less so in the right contexts. Although whites were predisposed to see violence in all scenes of black protest (since protest was outside acceptable black roles and thus carried a hint of aggressive self-determination that defied the norm of black disempowerment), even protestors who resisted police authorities could be read as nonviolent with the appropriate framing.
Bill Hudson worked alongside Moore, and a handful of other white photographers, to capture the demonstrations on May 3 in Birmingham. He snapped the famous image of Officer Dick Middleton grabbing the shirt and sweater of a neatly dressed black man as a police dog lunges, straining its leash (figure 24). After his day of shooting, Hudson handed off his film for processing to Jim Laxon, the supervising editor of the Associated Press's Atlanta bureau. In an interview with the journalist Diane McWhorter, Laxon recalled his strong reaction to the Hudson photograph in 1963, explaining that "the saintly calm of the young [man] in the snarling jaws of the German shepherd" gave him the same feeling he had experienced nearly two decades before when processing his first Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph (of a woman leaping from a burning high-rise hotel in Atlanta in 1946). The Hudson photograph, published the next day on the front pages of dozens of northern papers, was framed by reporters and editors in ways that echoed Laxon's reading of the youth's innocence and composure in the face of unwarranted violence. The Communist Daily Worker, a newspaper highly sympathetic to the black freedom struggle, described Hudson's image as "a grinning cop setting his savage dog at the throat of a frail Negro." An editorial in the Washington Post mourned for "the maltreated Negro youth ... and for [the Negroes'] misguided oppressors." In a memoir of his youth in Birmingham, a white former resident wrote that Hudson's photograph created "an image that would burn forever." He recalled "the thin well-dressed boy seeming to be leaning into the dog, his arms limp at his side, calmly staring straight ahead as though to say, 'Take me, here I am.'"
Influential black newspaper and magazine reports in the 1960s presented a decidedly different interpretation of the photograph to their readers. Unlike white publications, which were reticent about interviewing black protestors or even identifying them by name, black media outlets routinely publicized the feelings, motivations, and identities of blacks pictured in civil rights imagery. The black press identified the unnamed civilian in Hudson's photograph as fifteen-year-old Walter Gadsden. We know from a lengthy article in the national black periodical Jet, in 1963, that Gadsden was not a student demonstrator that day in May but a curious bystander who went downtown to check up on his protesting schoolmates. He was born into a prominent southern newspaper family that had little sympathy for King or the protest struggle. In the Jet article, Gadsden recalled, "When the policeman grabbed me I didn't see the dog at first because it was behind me. When he whirled me around, jerking me toward the dog, I automatically threw my knee up in front of the dog's head" (figure 25).
The reporter explained that Gadsden had grown up with dogs in his household and that his father had taught him to protect himself from aggressive animals. His raised left knee was his effort to ward off the dog's bite; the height at which he holds his knee suggests that he is not simply walking into the waiting jaws. More significant than the visual evidence of his knee and Gadsden's recorded account, however, are a number of present-day historians' observations about his left hand, which grasps the right wrist of Middleton's outstretched arm. Birmingham protest volunteers attended workshops in the philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action, where they participated in role-playing sessions to desensitize them to the brutality of the police. Protestors who had received this training in King's nonviolence knew to avoid the type of active resistance that Gadsden displayed. Gadsden's grip on Middleton, had white viewers noted it, would have undercut the attributes "saintly," "maltreated," and "passive" that they ascribed to the youth; these viewers likely failed to see the gripping hand because their attention was focused on other visual and textual cues: the Jockey Boy restaurant sign at the upper left, which conjures a white fantasy of docile black antebellum grooms; Gadsden's respectable dress, slumped shoulders, slack right arm, and downward gaze; and photographic captions that highlighted the "attacking" or "lunging" dog.
Another possibility is that the signs of Gadsden's self-defense were simply less legible to white audiences in the 1960s. The historian Christopher Strain recently documented the integral, albeit largely unacknowledged, role played by black self-defense in the American civil rights struggle from its onset. He traces the importance of self-defense before the rise of the Nation of Islam and the rhetoric of black power and also suggests that journalists, historians, and even some activists were blind to it because of their eagerness to categorize all acts of black protest as either "violent" or "nonviolent." Americans at the time may simply have failed to register that Gadsden was acting in self-defense in the face of obvious aggression, for they had been conditioned to read black protest in either/or terms. Confronted with an ambiguous image, many viewers simply edited out the visual evidence that contradicted their preferred reading of black protest. Jet's reporter seemed amused that a photograph of an untrained bystander caught actively defending himself produced "a perfect picture of non-violence in action: a tight-lipped, grimacing youth passively submitting to the vicious brutality of a Dixie policeman and his dog."
While the white misreading of the Hudson photograph was one that inadvertently aided the civil rights cause, we know that protest leaders took advantage of the propensity of whites to project meanings onto the actions and motivations of blacks. Wyatt Walker, one of King's chief aides in Birmingham, noticed that the white press was unable to distinguish between curious black bystanders, unconnected to the movement, and trained protestors dedicated to the cause. To make up for the modest number of protestors willing to march at the start of the campaign in early April, Walker determined to send marchers out only when black crowds were present. As he recalled of the white press, "All they know is Negroes, and most of the spectacular pictures printed in Life and in television clips had the commentary 'Negro demonstrators' when they weren't that at all." Despite our tendency to assume that visual evidence was important in molding viewers' understandings of the photograph-and events in the street-white perceptions of Birmingham came into focus through a race-based lens that was only loosely tied to visual evidence.
The photograph contained sufficient signs of black inactivity and white activity to allow whites to read a reassuring narrative of race. Once the photograph was pigeonholed, audiences had little interest in what it actually depicted. The story line was set. Although we can certainly learn something about the era from what the photograph's audiences failed to see, we can glean little social significance from close readings of the documentary details captured in a photographic frame. Historians have long known, for instance, that American photographers of the Civil War dragged corpses across battlefields and arranged them for effect, posing them with rifles and canteens to create more picturesque and morally resonant images for their Gilded Age audiences. Thus, the iconic photographs of the Civil War "lied" about the details of particular battles to communicate larger narratives about war and death that reflected the values prized at the time. Hudson's photograph of Gadsden was not staged, but its framing in the press and the ease with which it allowed viewers to reduce the complex social dynamics of the Birmingham campaign to a stark narrative of good versus evil ensured that it was as removed from the social complexities on the street as were the battlefield photographs of the previous century. As reporters of both the Civil War and the civil rights movement readily grasped, iconic photographs eschew the complexity of real-world social dynamics in favor of unambiguous messages that audiences can easily digest. Simplistic and resonant narratives of life and death, good and evil, peace and violence, inaction and action, North and South, and black and white are at the heart of all iconic scenes.
Even if one acknowledges that whites consistently saw inactive blacks and active whites in civil rights photographs , the temptation exists to attribute this perception to the tactics embraced by the leaders of the civil rights struggle. Perhaps the evident passivity of black protestors should be seen as a consciously adopted tactic of the activists. After all, black protestors were famous for "passive resistance," which was introduced to the movement by James Farmer, James Lawson, Glenn Smiley, and Bayard Rustin and popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. But whites' investment in black passivity should not be confused with the historical realities of the struggle. Consider that passive resistance is not the same as inactivity, nor does it represent a lack of agency; depicting blacks as passive was routine long before the development of twentieth-century civil rights strategies; and white journalists (and later historians) presented black civil rights protestors as passive because that narrative most effectively engaged whites and met their psychological needs.
In Life's eulogy for Mahatma Gandhi after his assassination in 1948, the editors spoke admiringly of how Gandhi "took his own religious belief in nonviolence and from it fashioned the weapon of ... organized pacifism." Rather than contrasting Asian inactivity with the activity of Europeans or imagining Indian independence as a by-product of the well-meaning British, the editors celebrated the tremendous power of nonviolent civil disobedience. So inspired were these editors with Gandhi's achievements that they asked readers to consider whether his "weapon" might "turn out to be the answer to the atomic bomb." Echoing such assessments, the eulogy in the Los Angeles Times deemed him a "meek" man who nonetheless "wielded tremendous power," and the remembrance in the Washington Post noted that he turned the simple act of fasting into a "potent weapon." A Life article on American civil rights that appeared a week after the publication of the Birmingham photographs extended this military metaphor, noting that Gandhi "forged passive resistance into a weapon."
That the editors of Life could cast Gandhi and his supporters as powerful actors and King and his black followers as hapless victims is intriguing, given the influence of Gandhi's philosophy on the civil rights movement. Civil rights organizers counted on the brutality of police chiefs and the hostility of governors to create newsworthy spectacles (much as Gandhi counted on the overwrought reactions of South African and colonial British officials), but the protests, and the political advances that came in their wake, were nonetheless the product of black action. Nonviolent activists need great self-control and power of will to weather verbal and physical abuse while sitting calmly at a lunch counter or standing stoically before a lunging police dog during an orderly protest in the street. A white reporter whose childhood training taught him to equate bravery with physical violence recalled how the activists changed his thinking after years of covering their protests: "[What] King and his followers and all of the SNCC and CORE kids do, that is, keep nonviolently moving forward in the face of threats and beatings, and even death ... took a lot more courage than fighting."
Black practitioners of nonviolent civil disobedience, to counter perceptions that their tactics were passive, linked the practice rhetorically to war. James Farmer, cofounder of the Committee of Racial Equality (CORE, later the Congress of Racial Equality) and a pioneering figure in the modern civil rights movement, called the struggle a "war without violence," explaining that civil disobedience was "not acquiescence, as most people at that time, when they heard of nonviolence, assumed it was." King too, throughout his career, emphasized that nonviolent protest was active. Shunning the term passive resistance, which appeared frequently in white press coverage of civil rights, King referred to his approach as "nonviolent direct action." To his followers, he explained, "Our weapons are protest and love," and "we are going to fight until we tear the heart out of Dixie." In another speech, he told his black audience, "We have a power, power that can't be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and in guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi." Speaking of the protest marches in Birmingham, King noted to a Newsweek reporter, "Non-violence has become a military tactical approach." Surely appreciating the white penchant for downplaying the agency of blacks, advocates of direct action used metaphors of armed conflict to describe their nonviolent approach and so remove the taint of passivity from black resistance.
While the example of Indian empowerment necessitated no shift in Life's depiction-the magazine rarely covered the activities of Indians-the same cannot be said of the magazine's portrayals of Jews. Throughout the 1930s, and into the 1940s, particularly after the liberation of Nazi death camps in the waning months of World War II, the U.S. press routinely depicted Jews as victims whose bodies were acted on by others (figure 26). Toward the middle of the twentieth century, images of victimized, weak, emaciated, or dead Jewish bodies were widely disseminated in the media. Within a few years of the end of the war in Europe, however, such depictions were counterbalanced by photographs and articles celebrating the heroic exploits of rugged Jews battling numerically superior Arab forces in the Near East (figure 27). Just three years after the conclusion of the war in Europe, the editors of Life praised the Jews of Palestine for battling "powerfully" against encircling Arab armies. Other media accounts described Jewish fighters as "crack troops," "tough commandos." and "warriors." While the mainstream press quickly transformed Jews from victims of violence to calculating actors in control of their own destiny, blacks' activism in the streets failed to gain them a corresponding shift in popular perception. Art and photographic historians may be more attuned today to the social damage done by images of blacks as violent aggressors, but the effects of iconic civil rights scenes were no less pronounced.
One could argue more easily that scenes of black passivity in the white media of the 1960s reflected the choices of blacks if these images did not hew so closely to nineteenth-century formulas. Exactly one hundred years before Moore and Hudson snapped their famous images, a white photographer produced a daguerreotype widely known as The Scourged Back (1863). It shows a black man, viewed from behind, with dramatic whipping scars crisscrossing his back. The sitter was a freedman we know today only as Gordon, who escaped from the Mississippi plantation on which he was enslaved and met advancing Union troops at Baton Rouge in March 1862 during the U.S. Civil War. The original image, taken by the New Orleans photographic team of McPherson and Oliver, was turned into a popular abolitionist carte de visite by the Philadelphia firm of McAllister Brothers (figure 28) and ultimately reproduced in a woodblock engraving for the Independence Day issue of Harper's Weekly in 1863 (figure 29).
Had the photograph been conceived as a portrait, photographers and abolitionists might have narrated any one of several powerful stories with it: Gordon's harrowing escape from slavery, his resourcefulness in rubbing onions against his body to throw off pursuing bloodhounds, his brave exploits as a scout for Union troops, or his determination to serve in the Union army. But, contravening the conventions of portraiture, Gordon is stripped to the waist, appears without identifying background or props, and shows only his shaded profile to viewers. With Gordon's scars foregrounded and the abolitionist carte de visite titled The Scourged Back and the Harper's Weekly article on him called "A Typical Negro," viewers were encouraged to equate the sitter's identity with his victimization. The three versions of this powerful image worked in conjunction with President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to shift views of the Civil War in the North from that of a conflict fought to preserve the Union to one that would ensure what the president famously called "a new birth of freedom." The Scourged Back, a prototype of the photographs taken by northern periodicals in Birmingham, shows a black body damaged by brutal southern whites, in an effort to galvanize the sentiments of northern liberals.
The formula for depicting black civil rights protestors and former slaves was, on rare occasions, applied to whites. But viewers understood that whites displayed in settings and poses typically reserved for blacks transcended the violence they suffered. Two years after the production of the carte de visite of Gordon, the surgeon Reed B. Bontecou made an albumen silver print of Israel Spotts, a patient under his care (c. 1865; figure 30). The image shows a gravely wounded Civil War soldier striking the mirror image of Gordon's then-famous pose as pus drains into a bowl from his infected right lung. Despite the formal similarities of the photographs, Spotts has an identity beyond the details of his battle-scarred back or the medical procedures he endures. First, the photographic print is labeled with the sitter's full name, suggesting that Spotts had an existence beyond the photographic frame. Second, Bontecou gathered his medical photographs in a published volume that reported on his treatment of individual patients and their response to his care. Whereas abolitionists circulated their carte de visite of Gordon with no contextual information, knowing that the prominent scars would convey all the information northerners needed, the surgeon's photographs and medical notes gave the histories of named men who responded to treatment in personalized ways. Third, because white viewers were conditioned to read nonwhites as representative of their race, victimized black bodies said less about the individuals depicted than about the plight of all blacks. The Scourged Back necessarily spoke to whites about the black condition, whereas Israel Spotts described the experience of a single (white) man.
The dearth of identifying information accompanying the freedman's photograph and the plethora of details accompanying the image of the patient have a lot to do with the nature of abolitionist and medical photography, respectively. But we should not deem the different conventions governing these photographic genres to be a race-neutral explanation of the men's disparate depictions. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, white middle-class men appeared topless almost exclusively in photographic genres that offered a socially respectable explanation for their state of undress and preserved their individuality. Black men, in contrast, had their inferior social position marked through depictions (be they abolitionist or anthropological) that ignored the men's individuality in the promotion of a "type." If one views these photographs in isolation, maintaining anonymity for the bodies in abolitionist photographs and naming the bodies in medical photographs appear to make perfect sense, but the selection of an appropriate photographic genre for the depiction of either blacks or whites was driven by racial considerations. Throughout the nineteenth century (and for much of the twentieth), blacks were overwhelmingly relegated to photographic genres in which their anonymity and their role as symbols "made sense."
From Civil War to civil rights, the visual codes in iconic images of blacks changed little. To judge by the photographs only, the depiction of blacks as victims has been a historical constant, without regard to the social conditions of the time and place. The transhistorical picture of black suffering owes much to the consistency of these codes, but it has been advanced by the photographic medium itself. In On Photography (1977), Susan Sontag points out that Western first-world nations generally shield their citizens from normal human suffering-privation, misery, pain, disease, and especially death. She contends that Westerners consequently are curious to experience vicariously what they secretly dread: "The feeling of being exempt from calamity stimulates interest in looking at painful ... [photographs], and looking at them suggests and strengthens the feeling that one is exempt. Partly it is because one is 'here,' not 'there,' and partly it is the character of inevitability that all events acquire when they are transmuted into images. In the real world, something is happening and no one knows what is going to happen. In the image-world, it has happened, and it will forever happen in that way." In light of Sontag's insights, one can see how the photographs of injured black bodies reinforced a racial divide between those who suffer and those who observe, naturalized a century of photographic depictions of victimized blacks, and so managed to "explain" such imagery without recourse to the economic, social, and political conditions of black life.
In the 1960s, the appeal of civil rights photographs to whites rested largely on their ability to focus white attention on acts of violence and away from historically rooted inequities in public accommodation, voting rights, housing policies, and labor practices. Because viewers imagined that the meaning of the photographs resided in the captured scenes, photographs of policemen loosing attack dogs or of firemen plying their hoses scripted the "problem" of race as violence. This narrative let whites who condemned or simply avoided racial violence off the hook. In isolation, photographs presented racism as an interpersonal problem-evil white officials and mobs inflicting injury on innocent blacks-thereby obscuring the structural inequalities that benefited whites in the South and the North. And in picturing "racists" as the most violent southern thugs, the photographs let northern whites imagine their own politics as progressive, or at least humane, and did not challenge them to examine their systems of belief. The absence of any meaningful social or historical context allowed whites to "feel" for blacks, untroubled by their own stake in a racially oppressive system. The images could then generate sympathetic reactions and incremental reforms for blacks without disturbing the underlying racial values that allowed social inequalities and even violence to continue.
Northern whites' need to decontextualize racial struggles to empathize with the plight of nonwhites is apparent in their reaction to civil rights protests in the North. A number of historians have documented how King was unable to duplicate the dramatic victories he had enjoyed in the south when he made his first forays into northern cities. In January 1966, two and a half years after Birmingham, King moved into an overpriced, dilapidated apartment in Chicago's west-side slums to publicize a new initiative to win housing and economic reforms for the city's black residents. Working with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations, the SCLC organized a series of multiracial marches against the Chicago Real Estate Board, specific real estate agencies, and Mayor Richard J. Daley.
In virtually every white neighborhood through which the protestors marched, they encountered large angry crowds of residents wielding rocks and bottles and shouting obscenities (figure 31). Andrew Young echoed the amazement of other civil rights marchers that summer at the unexpected fierceness of the counterprotests in Chicago. To a reporter, he recalled a march through the south-side Chicago neighborhood of Marquette Park: "The violence in the South always came from a rabble element. But these were women and children and husbands and wives coming out of their homes [and] becoming a mob.... It was far more frightening." In discussing the same march, King recalled that he had "never seen as much hatred and hostility on the part of so many people." While Chicago's white newspapers tended to interpret the violence of southern marches as an unacceptable consequence of white prejudice, they deemed similar disturbances in the North to be the result of black incitement.
Any comparison of white reactions to the Birmingham and Chicago protests must account for significant changes that took place in the racial context between 1963 and 1966. The rise of the "black power" movement, the media's increasing attention to the Nation of Islam, the separatist and militant turn of SNCC after Stokely Carmichael replaced John Lewis as chairman in 1966, and well-publicized racial disturbances in Rochester, Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Philadelphia in 1964 and Watts in 1965 left liberal whites feeling more apprehensive about acts of black protest. But even the marked social change of these years cannot explain why northern liberal whites withdrew their support for King's agenda once he began protests in midwestern and northeastern cities. To note the antipathy of many northern working-class whites to civil rights reform is one thing, but to see the number of progressive whites who lauded and encouraged the northern campaign at the start turn against it once black demonstrators took to the streets is another.
The liberal Catholic archbishop of Chicago, John Cody, had a letter read at the Soldier Field rally that kicked off the summer phase of King's Chicago campaign in July, pledging that "your struggles and your sufferings will be mine until the last vestige of discrimination and injustice is blotted out here in Chicago and throughout America." Just one month later, however, Cody was sufficiently concerned about the peaceful marches and violent counterprotests that "with a heavy heart," he declared that the civil rights marchers had a "serious moral obligation" to halt. Robert Johnson, a member of the International Executive Board of the United Auto Workers, who five months earlier had declared the UAW to be "in this thing all the way," also asked King to reverse course as the turmoil in Chicago grew. When white-on-black violence came north, liberals felt more anger and fear than sympathy. As long as the protests took place at a physical and psychological remove, northern media outlets could select photographs of protesting blacks that reinforced a "safe" dynamic of black-white relations. Once protests moved north, this tactic proved impractical because northern whites were then exposed to unmediated scenes of black agency in the streets. In Chicago, the up-close experience of black activism effectively prevented the emergence of northern white solidarity with blacks.
To a remarkable degree, liberal whites in the North and the South responded similarly to black agency in their own regions. At the conclusion of Moore's photographic essay in Life, the editors printed interviews on race relations with a cross-section of whites from Birmingham (see figure 12). Respondents with liberal and conservative views expressed conflicting prognoses for the South's racial tensions yet were virtually unanimous in their view that recent black actions had exacerbated the problems. Birmingham's Reverend Wallace Lovett expressed the sentiments of many of the region's more open-minded whites: "The solution to the problems we face here will not come out of demonstrations of massive force, but out of sensible negotiations." In April 1963, a month before Life published its interviews, eight of Birmingham's most liberal white clergymen criticized King directly for leading the protests in their city. In their "Public Statement of Eight Alabama Clergymen," which first appeared in the Birmingham News, the religious leaders claimed that protest actions that "incite ... hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems." And they urged the "Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations.... When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, not in the street." As if reading from the same script, liberals in the North and the South criticized peaceful demonstrators for the outbreak of violence as they counseled blacks to pursue quiet talk rather than action.
The shared language of liberal whites in the North and the South is noteworthy but hardly astonishing. Present-day observers are likely to see the failure of so-called progressive whites to act on their professed beliefs as a normal if unfortunate response to the real-life complexities of their era. After all, it is easier to "know" intellectually which course of action is consistent with one's beliefs when events are safely distanced by geography or time; when a conflict is at one's front door -and the stakes are more personal-emotion trumps belief. For many of us, knowing that liberal whites in the North espoused a rhetoric of equal opportunity mitigates our disappointment with their reaction to black activism. If most whites in the 1960s could not act on their beliefs, they deserve credit for valuing a rhetoric that anticipated a more just American society.
The impulse to distinguish between progressive and reactionary whites is deeply engrained in the narratives of the civil rights struggle. During the 1960s, conservative whites saw a political gulf between those who supported states' rights and regional customs and those who advocated federal intervention; progressive blacks found in such divisions reassuring proof that the conflict was not between blacks and whites but between those who believed in ideals of freedom and equality and those who did not; and, as I've suggested, both moderate and liberal whites took the rift as a marker of their moral distance from whites who advocated or accepted violence. Given the many groups eager to highlight ideological differences between whites, period observers and historians have exaggerated the divisions and given insufficient consideration to the social repercussions of the race-based values whites continued to share. Although whites in the 1960s certainly held a range of attitudes toward race, the emphasis on the ideological divisions separating whites has dramatically flattened interpretations of the era's visual culture. As an interpretive counterbalance, we need to consider how the beliefs shared by so-called progressive and reactionary whites helped define the significance of civil rights images, rather than articulate again how the photographs mark the divide between "good" and "bad" whites.
The manner in which liberal and conservative whites used photographs of violence against inactive black victims (and the violence itself) revealed a shared understanding of blackness in the North and the South. Sympathetic and hostile whites may have used such "violence" with the intent to liberate or repress blacks, but in each case, the desired social end relied on a sense of the immutable relation between black and white. We know from the photographic record and Moore's own accounts that he threw himself into the center of the conflict in Birmingham. In a photograph taken by a staff photographer for the Birmingham News (figure 32), we see the tumult of the streets and, in the center of the photograph toward the back of the scene, Charles Moore, aiming his camera while framed between a disheveled Gadsden, on the left, and a white policeman, on the right. Years after his work in Birmingham, Moore told an interviewer about his mind-set as he documented the confrontations: "I didn't want to stand back and shoot [the events] with a long lens. I didn't have much equipment at the time, no lens longer than a 105 mm, but even a 105 would have kept me out of the action. No, I wanted to shoot it with a 35 mm or a 28 mm lens, to be where I could feel it, so I could sense it all around me.... I wanted to get a feeling of what it was like to be involved." Moore's interest in getting his camera into "the action" to capture close-ups for his national white audience dovetails with "Bull" Connor's expressed desire to bring white spectators into the fray to "see the dogs work," as he famously said. Driven by different agendas, the journalist and the commissioner sought to draw whites into scenes of brutalized, inactive blacks. The political distance between the two men should not obscure their shared desire to make a particular kind of black body visible for the edification of whites.
Some readers will understandably feel ill at ease with my linking a progressive journalist to a reactionary politician. However, the point is not that whites in 1960s America had a common vision for society but that they built their distinctive visions on shared racial bedrock that few whites questioned. Taking society as they found it, photographers and editors of the northern white press used long-standing norms of racial identity to move their white audiences in productive ways. Instead of complicating or disrupting whites' standard picture of blacks, or the civil rights struggle, the white press relied on these legible and comfortable formulations to make the case for reform. As a consequence, the limits of reform were embedded into the project's grammar because the changes encouraged by civil rights photographs could not alter the "passive" role for blacks that generated white sympathy in the first place. In an odd way, the iconic photographs accepted and perpetuated the same destructive dynamic of white power enacted in the streets by southern white mobs and law enforcement officials.
We often consider images of violence to serve one or another opposing function: they endorse ("this is what happens when people forget their place"), or they condemn ("this is what happens when people lose their humanity"). But in practice they serve both. America has a long and troubling history of lynchings in which mobs worked with the tacit approval, even support, of authorities to torture and kill a victim outside of the legal system. Up through the early decades of the twentieth century, gruesome photographs of lynching victims circulated freely in American society-even on postcards sent to friends and family through the U.S. mail-as racist endorsements of white power. But black antilynching crusaders, such as Ida B. Wells, displayed the same images to condemn white brutality. The photographs were identical, so some of those who viewed lynching postcards or antilynching tracts surely had emotional responses opposite to those the presenters intended. It is difficult to see any photographs depicting the abuse of black Americans as wholly benign.
Intellectual and practical dangers exist in the circulation of any violent imagery, but when the group depicted is disproportionately the victim of real-world violence, the stakes are even higher. Depictions of violence are not the same as the violence itself, and even violent scenes can catalyze productive change. However, when representations of black passivity and victimhood are the norm, images that adhere to this norm help maintain racial systems of domination. Without taking anything away from the liberal whites who empathized with the blacks depicted in scenes of violence, neither a sympathetic engagement with black protestors nor disgust with segregationist tactics exempts one from complicity in a nineteenth-century dynamic of black-white relations that has consistently limited the opportunities of blacks. Although scenes of violence against blacks made liberal whites uncomfortable, they also offered a socially acceptable way of illustrating racism. For white audiences, such images are perversely safe to look at, because they create distance between the perpetrators of violence and those who witness it. White discomfort with such scenes in the 1960s was a visceral reaction to the violence performed by "bad" white actors on "innocent" black victims. If the photographs had illustrated the discriminatory practices that oppressed blacks across the United States, and that were tacitly supported by millions of whites in the North, public discomfort with the photographs would have had a more threatening, personal root.
Moore's progressive credentials are not in doubt. He not only documented many key events of the civil rights struggle but spent many years lecturing to student groups on the lessons of the 1960s. In a recent interview, he noted, "Some people's attitudes will never change, but I hope and believe that the civil rights movement has helped a younger generation understand the need for equality and justice for all peoples." The photographer and his editors at Life were well-intentioned liberals who worked hard to effect change with the visual and rhetorical tools they had readily at hand. They sought to prod American society into prompt and meaningful change.
Notwithstanding the good intentions of journalists and the positive outcomes of publishing the iconic photographs of Birmingham, more empowered models of black identity were available in 1963. Leigh Raiford, a scholar of American studies, has called attention to photographs and posters created by SNCC that contained alternative discourses for picturing the agency of blacks in the early 1960s. She notes how infrequently SNCC's civil rights posters used violent imagery, instead highlighting blacks as the engine of civil rights reform. A 1963 SNCC poster created from a Danny Lyon photograph of participants at the March on Washington bears little affinity to scenes of activists hit by water jets and menaced by dogs (figure 33). As is evident in the original Lyon photograph (figure 34), the man with his right arm extended snaps his fingers. In the poster, however, that gesture, seen against the sky and obscured by the large N of "NOW," has encouraged viewers to mistake his raised hand for a fist. The poster illustrates an alternative model for depicting civil rights protests, in which racist whites are banished and blacks are forceful actors. In Raiford's words, the poster illustrates "that freedom is not to be found in heavenly hereafter but grasped [by blacks] this instant." Her study reminds us of the influence of SNCC's imagery in advancing the civil rights agenda and suggests both the availability of such alternative imagery to white editors and reporters and the barriers to its wide dissemination.
If the white photographers of civil rights had produced images foregrounding the agency of black protestors, popular white periodicals would probably not have published them. Had the white media published images that directly communicated the active role of blacks in tearing down segregation, they would probably not have generated sympathy for blacks among many northern whites, nor would they have aided the passage of civil rights legislation. Had such progressive images appeared in popular venues with appropriate captions, they would surely have proved counterproductive in the short term-unnerving northern whites, leading them to feel greater sympathy for southern whites, and possibly smoothing the way for Alabama's Governor George C. Wallace to deploy National Guard troops to crush Birmingham's civil rights protests. While whites could have made and published photographs representing the "activeness" of blacks in the struggle, such images would not have worked as quickly to improve the day-to-day lives of blacks. Although King was quick to chastise liberal whites when they failed to commend "the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of the most inhuman provocation," he also needed and appreciated the images Moore and Hudson created. In the climate of 1963, few could imagine circulating photographs in the white press that would both articulate the power of direct action and generate the sympathy among liberal whites that the movement desperately sought. Understanding that black frustration with segregation was high and support for nonviolent direct action limited, King repeatedly explained to white audiences that reform could not wait.
Yet I have no doubt that images forcefully depicting black agency in the mainstream press could have chipped away at the longstanding orthodoxy that confined people of color to marginal roles in the American drama and ensured that their voices went unheard when they sought to reject their assigned parts. As we have seen, photographs in the white mainstream press observed this orthodoxy-counting on its existence to generate white goodwill and, ultimately, unthreatening reforms. Images of empowered blacks in Life, Time, Newsweek, Look and the Saturday Evening Post would have paid off only in the long term. They would not have spurred immediate legislative action but could have helped eliminate the ideological foundations that made both prejudiced beliefs and unjust laws appear natural and right. In other words, such imagery might have attacked the source of racial inequality rather than right superficial wrongs that were merely symptoms of the disease.
We cannot easily imagine how history could have turned out differently, never mind accept the notion that media depictions of black agency could have supported far-reaching reform. But history suggests that the major social and legislative reforms of the early 1960s-including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965-were not the greatest changes possible amid the social and political realities of 1960s America. In his monumental study of municipal politics and civil rights, Dividing Lines (2002), the historian J. Mills Thornton III notes that period observers and historians have consistently simplified the complexities of the civil rights struggle. For many years, reductive assumptions prevailed: that southern whites were unified in their support of white supremacy and segregation, that black fervor for civil rights was identical to support for integration, and that elimination of segregation meant the eradication of racial injustice. In an effort to restore the local character and historically uneven development of the civil rights movement, Thornton's Dividing Lines takes aim at the enduring belief that the civil rights struggle was a coherent southern protest movement propelled by national leadership. Building on the insight of historian C. Vann Woodward that local politics played an important role in creating segregation in the 1890s, Thornton shows that political maneuvering in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma provided the tools for destroying segregation in the 1960s. Rather than interpreting the movement as a wave of activism beginning in Montgomery, picking up speed in Birmingham, and growing into a tsunami in Selma, Thornton makes a plausible case for each campaign's eruption from local conditions. Although blacks in Birmingham certainly paid keen attention to events in Montgomery, Thornton reminds us that so did blacks in the North and in cities across the South in which no comparable civil rights campaigns emerged.
In digging deeply into the unique conditions in each of his selected cities, Thornton reveals that local reforms were both limited and enabled by the political conditions of their communities. He unearths a wealth of evidence that changing political conditions made once-"unrealistic" reforms possible. Assumptions about what was and was not possible "were in fact subject to evolution; as changes came to the community, the frontiers of what appeared achievable in the future were gradually moved." Blacks were much more likely to bury their internal political differences and unite against the white power structure when they perceived a realistic possibility of change; and the resulting unity and willingness to set their sights on a common goal made the attainment of reform more likely. In a kind of feedback loop, perceptions of change opened the door to the ever-expanding possibilities of real-world change. Given the tendency of Americans in the 1960s to interpret the discrete protest actions in southern cities as a coordinated movement, initially modest efforts to alter the patterns of segregated seating on Montgomery buses or desegregate the lunch counters at a handful of downtown Birmingham department stores played an outsized role in shifting national horizons of political possibility. Once we appreciate that the opportunities for reform were always uneven-that the changes in Birmingham, for example, were impossible in Mobile, or even in Birmingham, before black (and white) residents imagined otherwise-we cannot speak authoritatively of "the limits of reform in 1960s America." As the next chapters build their case for the role that photographs played and might have played in the 1960s, I ask readers to bear in mind the uneven and malleable border of what was achievable and to entertain the possibility of alternative histories of civil rights.
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