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Seeing through Race A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography

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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