Capturing a Movement: Celebrating the Photography of the Civil Rights Era

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. brought to light the injustices of racial inequality with his “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. brought to light the injustices of racial inequality with his “I Have a Dream” speech. While King’s captivating oration regularly drew thousands of spectators, it is important to remember that even King relied on other forms of publicity to advocate for his cause.

During the Civil Rights era, the camera was a powerful form of expression and the “weapon of choice” for many in which it would carry lasting memories of events that would come to define the movement. “The world seldom believes the horror stories of history until they are documented via the mass media,” said King.

Known as the “Original Civil Rights Photographer,” Ernest Withers left behind a legacy of an estimated five million photographs in his 60-year career. One of Wither’s most famous works include photos from the trial of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old, African-American teen accused of whistling at a white woman and subsequently kidnapped, beaten, and shot. The perpetrators, two white men, were tried and acquitted by an all-white jury. Wither’s most memorable photo from the incident depicts Till’s great-uncle in court pointing to identify Till’s murderer who sat off-camera to the left. The photo itself was not taken in high quality, yet this emphasized the rawness of the situation, while the horizontal lines produced by the desks, chairs, and window frame direct eye-movement in the direction that the man is pointing towards. Photos of this trial spread quickly and provoked outrage from the black community which drove the Civil Rights movement forward.

King referred to Till’s murder as “one of the most brutal and inhumane crimes of the twentieth century,” while Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montogmery city bus one hundred days after Till’s death. As Reverend Jesse Jackson told Vanity Fair in 1988, “Rosa said she thought about going to the back of the bus. But then she thought about Emmett Till and she couldn’t do it.” The Montgomery bus boycott of 1956 was another iconic shot captured by Withers. It depicts Martin Luther King Jr. in a suit and riding on the first desegregated bus. He looks straight ahead at the camera while other people look out the windows. In the background, a white man is standing, holding the railing, contradicting traditional societal standards, and reflecting a pivotal moment of the movement. Approximately 40 thousand people would go on to join the boycott.

Jack Thornell, another recognized photographer during the era, won the Pulitzer Prize for his candid photo of James Meredith’s shooting during the March Against Fear in 1966. To capture such raw photographs, Thornell remembered: “We were worried about getting shot too because we were in the line of fire… Meredith was grimacing from the middle of the road, and I took the photograph.” The photo depicts Meredith as the single subject, anguished and with his mouth open, lying on a concrete sidewalk. Other photographers were also in close proximity to the incidents they recorded. In 1965, James Karales captured his iconic Selma-to-Montgomery March, where protestors walked 54 miles to call attention to racial injustice by advocating for voting rights for people of color. Protestors’ continuous walking for three days called attention to the need for a national Voting Rights Act. In the panoramic photo, men and women walked in line and held the flag of America. The clouds loomed in the sky and pressed down on the figures who marched in unison, creating a somber yet powerful atmosphere.

Public response to Civil Rights Photography helped expose the cruelty of racial discrimination and forced segragation. It pushed forward the Civil Rights Movement, but also caused negative repercussions. For example, sharecropper Albert Thronton’s family was featured in a magazine photo essay, but after the release of the photos, the family was forced to relocate due to heavy white intimidation. In addition, photographers were suppressed by law enforcement through means of destroying cameras and beating reporters.

Photography served as a crucial force that propelled the Civil Rights movement forward. Through their candid portrayal of incredible and significant moments and their ability to depict scenes in ways that words simply could not, photography provided a visual outlet for Americans to witness firsthand the revolutionary movement that was sweeping the nation.

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