Object Specific Text
Appeal to This Age: Photography of the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1968
Appeal to This Age surveys the photography of the black-led freedom movement of the middle of our century. The modern civil rights movement got under way forty years ago with the Supreme Court decision on Brown v the Board of Education. By 1968, with the murder of Martin Luther King, the movement evolved into something else. This exhibition portrays those fifteen years of full movement fervor. Because of the collaborative moral energy they encapsulate, these photographs are among the most inspiring images of America.
These photographs are about participation, collaboration, struggle, and jubilation. Utopian visions become real here. As if they were allowed, the courageous participants in the movement rode and walked the highways together, sat down where they were not invited, danced in the parks and streets, sang on the stairs of power. They were not allowed, but they did it anyway, making the future happen. Fists and guns were thrust in their faces; clubs and fangs, and jet streams tore at their bodies; but they did not stop, they went on. These people stood up to power and took some of that power for themselves. As always, power did not concede willingly.
The modern civil rights movement was the most important social upheaval in post-war America. It cannot be understood without considering the photographs that accompanied it, photographs that had such a great influence in their time. Audiences both mass and elite were swayed to new beliefs and actions by images they saw reproduced in their newspapers and magazines.
Accounts of the civil rights movement are rich with stories about how a certain picture enlisted a convert to the cause, or turned a Senator's vote, or sickened a President, goading him to new legislative initiative.
There were two main types of civil rights photographers: the photojournalists, who came from outside of the movement; and the movement photographers, who were supported by movement organizations. Both types of photographer knew that they were recording crucial moments for a transforming nation. They rarely set out merely to make an "objective" record of historical events; rather, they felt a need to hasten the transformations, to choose a side. They chose the side of change, equality, and justice. Their photographs were made to expose and critique injustice, to disrupt the fatality of corrupt traditions, to encourage the resistors, to rage at brutalities.
Tha national press was made to serve movements ends, both forthrightly and through cunning. Movement organizers befriended journalists, and scheduled press-conferences. They learned how to produce news for the black press, and for the harder to stimulate white press. They played on the media's avarice for that most valuable of photographic commodities, the image of extreme violence.
The violence that met the movement was at times war-like. For the press, these battles filled a gap between the Korean and Vietnamese wars. Many of these pictures were given prominence in Life. During this period, the weekly issue of Life was the single most important organ of the media, reaching more than half of the adult population, and more Americans than any television program reached. Life preferred to present the movement through the iconography of war: uniformed forces, armed attacks, massed formations, commanders and foot-soldiers, battlefields, the wounded, state funerals.
Often the images were of uniformed and helmeted state officers attacking civilians. Sympathies for the oppressed were then enflames through the iconography of fascism. Both the Birmingham images and those of the Selma protests of 1965 exercised this effect. On March 8,1965 ABC interrupted its prime-time broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg with flash footage from Selma of state troopers stampeding and being peaceful marchers. "The hideous parallel between Auschwitz and Selma was obvious,even to the insensitive," wrote Warren Hinkle and David Welsh Ramparts 4 (June 1965). "The pictures from Selma were unpleasant ; juxtaposition of the Nazi Storm Troopers and the Alabama State Troopers made them unbearable".
The organizers of the Birmingham campaign of April-May 1963 called it "Project C" for "confrontation". Part of the plan was to provoke the spectacle of outrageous aggressions by racist authorities against peaceful African-Americans, including children. These images of repression were to be transmitted by the media to the national audiences. The brutal Birmingham police comissioner, Bull Connor, responded as provoked, ordering police-dog attacks and high-pressure fire-hoses directed at the demonstrators. The media responded with a large force of journalists. Charles Moore, working for Life, captured in Birmingham the most chilling names of the movement. One great picture shows a man balancing between two lunging dogs, while a third dog, who has just shredded the man's pants leg, turns to confront us out of the foreground. Other famous pictures detail the pummeling meted out by faceless officers wielding jets of water at a pressure of two hundred pounds per square inch.
These iconic images resounded throughout the nation and around the world. There is much testimony that the Birmingham pictures of 1963 (both still and moving), as well as pictures of the Selma marches of 1965 had a strong impact on Washington legislators. They influenced the enactment of the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Considerable space in this exhibition has been given to photographs of these two crucial historical spectacles.
Several remarkable photo-essays were published beyond the confines of Life. W. Eugene Smith's horrifying Ku Klux Klan series was shot on a Saturday night in May, 1951, while Smith was resaerching his great "Nurse Midwife" essay. It was not published until March, 1962, in The Second Coming Magazine. Dan Weiner was assigned in 1958 to photograph the Montgomery bus boycott for Colliers; he set himself the task of going deeper than the Life coverage. Weiner's rich photo-essay on this initial protest of the civil rights movement recognized the importance of the young Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Weiner spotlighted King at the very beginning of his great political and moral crusades. James Karales's poignant images of the Selma to Montgomery march were commissioned for a Look story called "Turning Point for the Church," which highighted a newly recognized moral imperative on the part of the white, Northern clergy.
While movement activists organized media events and courted the word press, they also pursued a parallel strategy of fostering their own cadre of movement photographers and publicists. This importnat fact has been largely ignored, and is not mentioned in histories of photography or of activist or political art. Many of these pictures can be said to emanate from the publicity –or propaganda – arm of the movement. Movement photographs were energetically distributed to the general press. And the images were also circulated within the ranks. Photographs, like freedom songs, were an integral mode of expression and communication for movement activists. They were an aid to understanding feelings and strategies, a means to cement solidarity, and a way to spread the passion.