How Photography Shifted the Balance of the Civil Rights Movement

Twitter and Facebook may be the civil uprising tools du jour, but they certainly weren't the first. Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare discusses how photography helped bring Southern brutalities to light and sustained the African American Civil Rights movement.

Figure i.1. (above) - Firemen blast protestors with high-pressure hoses, corner of Fifth Ave. North and 17th Street, Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963. Photograph by Charles Moore. (Charles Moore/Black Star)

For nearly two weeks in early May of 1963, national and international audiences rose each morning to images of violence, confrontation, and resistance splashed across the front pages of their major newspapers. Black-and-white photographs paraded daily through the New York Times and the Washington Post depicted white police officers in Birmingham, Alabama, wielding high-powered fire hoses and training police dogs on nonviolent black and often very young protesters (figures i.1, i.2). Organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), "Project C" (for "confrontation") brought center stage the publicly unacknowledged terror, violence, and daily inequities African Americans had long suffered at the hands of white southerners. Through forced confrontations between blacks and whites, between constitutional right and segregationist practice, between the genteel, progressive image of the New South and the dehumanizing Old South reality, the thousands of men, women, and children who participated in Project C confronted a watching world with the contradictions of contemporary southern race relations. They vividly and visually challenged an entire economic and social regime of power.

A year later, SCLC's leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recognized the importance of such vivid imagery in galvanizing support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King wrote of the campaign in his book Why We Can't Wait, "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." For King, the visual media proved a crucial component in capturing "fugitive" brutality, holding it still for scrutiny and transmitting this "naked truth" to watching and judging audiences.

How Photography Shifted the Balance of the Civil Rights Movement

Figure i.2. - William Gadsen attacked by police dogs in front of 16th Street Baptist Church, during a nonviolent protest, Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963. Photograph by Bill Hudson (AP Photos/Bill Hudson)


King praises photography and film for their work of exposure, revealing through mechanical reproduction facts that had remained hidden and therefore difficult to prove. By the time King penned Why We Can't Wait, he had witnessed, deployed, and been the subject of photographs of movement events both spectacular and quotidian. He believed deeply in their power to image African Americans as U.S. citizens who, like their white counterparts, were deserving of equal treatment. Images of the broken body of Emmett Till, of whites' abuse of four African American North Carolina A&T students sitting in at a Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter, of baseball bats and firebombs that greeted Freedom Riders in Mississippi and Alabama bus stations each reveal how vulnerable African Americans were when demonstrating for the most basic and fundamental of rights. They laid bare to nonblack audiences what African Americans of the Jim Crow era had long known, seen, and experienced. With bright enough lights and an army of cameras trained in the right direction, images were central to changing public opinion about the violent entrenchment of white supremacy in the South and that system's overdetermination of black life and possibility. The visual proved a tool as effective as bus boycotts and as righteous as nonviolence.

But white violence and black resistance are not the only captives imprisoned within the camera's luminous glare and vigilant eye. For many viewers today, almost the entirety of the civil rights movement is captured, quite literally, in the photographs of Birmingham 1963. These images have shaped and informed the ways scholars, politicians, artists, and everyday people recount, remember, and memorialize the 1960s freedom struggle specifically and movement histories generally. The use and repetition of movement photographs in contexts as varied as electoral campaigns, art exhibits, commercials, and, of course, academic histories have crystallized many of these photographs into icons, images that come to distill and symbolize a range of complex events and ideologies. These icons, in turn, become integral to processes of national, racial, and political identity formation. Even as these photographs mark movement participants' attempts to rewrite the meaning of black bodies in public space, the photographs also imprison - frame and "iconize" - images of legitimate leadership, appropriate forms of political action, and the proper place of African Americans within the national imaginary. The repeated use of many of the more recognizable photographs of African American social movements has had a "surplus symbolic value" in the work of constructing and reconstructing our collective histories. And they become guides to appropriate forms of future political action. Photographs become tools to aid memory. We are invited, expected, even demanded to recount and memorialize. To remember. But what exactly are we being asked to remember? How are we being asked to remember? And to what end?

King's apt phrase "imprisoned in a luminous glare" as metaphor for the work of the camera in African American social movements alerts us to the dialectical relationships between mass media and mass movements, photography and race, history and memory. It also suggests the tensions between captivity and fugitivity, the contradictions inherent in attempting to fix that which by its nature is mobile and mercurial. It calls attention to how mass media attempt to capture mass movements, photography tries to name and regulate "race," and history works to tame memory. The photograph in particular imposes a unitary vision and helps fix the meaning of that which it records. It provides the illusion of seeing an event in its entirety as it truly happened.

How Photography Shifted the Balance of the Civil Rights Movement

Figure i.3 - Crowd watches Birmingham protests; Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963. Photograph by Charles Moore. (Charles Moore/Black Star)


Just as Project C has become a touchstone of the civil rights movement, the photographs themselves have come to epitomize the power of photography in this moment. Even photographs as compelling as these cannot tell the whole story, cannot imprison all. One method of reading images would have us turn to the blurry figures appearing at the edges of the Project C photographs, Birmingham's other black youths (figure i.3). Not so properly attired or as well-behaved, these young, poor men and women refused to participate in the nonviolent actions that captured the world's attention.

They were less interested in the desegregation of public spaces than in economic equity. In the photographs we might catch them with their arms folded, intransigent witnesses. But outside the picture's frame they threw bottles and shouted obscenities at Bull Connor's police force. Subsequently, they were disciplined by the Birmingham police, by the organizers of Project C, and by the photographic frame that excised them from the documentary evidence of those events. The now-iconic photographs from Birmingham 1963, as noted by King, imprison Jim Crow order; yet what remains elusive in this framing is the expansive expressions of black political desire, constantly changing and evolving over the course of the twentieth century.


How Photography Shifted the Balance of the Civil Rights Movement

From IMPRISONED IN A LUMINOUS GLARE: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE AFRICAN AMERICAN FREEDOM STRUGGLE by Leigh Raiford. Copyright © 2011 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu

Leigh Raiford is associate professor of African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle is available from the University of North Carolina Press and Amazon.com