What We Want
Photography changes the struggle for racial justice
Maurice Berger, cultural historian and curator, describes how the power of photographic images was used to shape, and then forward, the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Danny Lyon’s cover shot for The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964) is dramatic and haunting: a screaming African-American protester restrained by the stranglehold of a helmeted white policeman. The year was 1964. The demonstrator was a high school student named Taylor Washington. The event was a civil rights protest in Atlanta. The Movement, a collaborative project with photos principally by Lyon and text by playwright Lorraine Hansberry, resonates with many such stark, black-and-white shots—images that bear witness to the tragedy and successes of the struggle for racial justice in the United States. The first book of civil rights photography, it was commissioned by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a powerful race advocacy group. It stands as a testament to the faith that civil rights leaders had in photography’s ability to advance its objectives.
So impressed were movement organizers with photos, they often took and used snapshots themselves, as a means of documenting and supporting their arguments and observations about the state of American race relations. In other instances, organizations such as SNCC, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), National Council of Churches, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) cultivated teams of professional “movement photographers,” both to create images that celebrated black life and achievement or served as instruments of motivation or persuasion. “It is no accident that if our story is to be told, we will have to write it and photograph it and disseminate it ourselves” proclaimed activist Mary King in 1964 about SNCC, the organization most responsible for nurturing movement photography. Or as the writer and curator Steven Kasher observes, these photographs were “like the justly famous freedom songs, they were aids to understanding feelings and strategies, to cementing solidarity, and to spreading the passion. [They] were circulated within the ranks, hung on walls of ‘freedom houses’ and offices, disseminated as posters and in movement publications.”
Under the initiative and leadership of its executive secretary, James Forman, SNCC was a vigorous supporter of this type of photography. Forman not only recognized the power of the medium to record significant events as they unfolded, he also believed that photography’s evidentiary ability made it a necessary and important part of the historical record. He hired Julian Bond, then a Morehouse College student, poet, and activist, to direct an aggressive and ongoing publicity campaign. Forman enlisted and helped train a team of photographers to augment this project, starting with Danny Lyon in 1962. He set up darkrooms in Atlanta and in Tougaloo, Mississippi as well as a network for distributing images to organizations, publishers, and periodicals. SNCC established the Southern Documentary Project, which relied on snapshots to record the movement and its events. As an aspect of its publicity outreach, the organization published scores of photographic books, pamphlets, and posters and also mounted photo exhibitions—exemplified by “US,” a 1967 exhibition documenting African-American life at the Countee Cullen branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem.
The subject matter of civil rights photography, both within and outside of the movement, was diverse, reflecting the varied concerns of the struggle. In the end, civil rights activists had come to rely on more than just photography’s capacity to document events. They understood that photographs were also adept messengers of ideas, capable of illuminating the cause and effects of a problem, giving a human face to abstract thoughts, and illustrating complex realities. Appearing with increasing frequency in myriad newspapers and magazines of the period—from abashedly anti-racist Negro newspapers such as the Amsterdam News, Chicago Defender, and Pittsburgh Courier to mainstream magazines, like Life, Look, Newsweek, and Time—these arresting photographs underscored the growing intensity, brutality, and exigency of the problem the nation then lived with.
The perils of black life in the Jim Crow South, for example, a remote and obscure phenomenon for many Americans, vividly materialized on the pages of mainstream periodicals in the late-1950s and 1960s (and considerably earlier in African-American magazines and newspapers). If white, middle-class Americans heretofore saw the subject of race as something to avoid, the sheer repetition of shots of racial dissention and hostility turned it into something that could not be ignored. By placing the question of civil rights front and center—and communicating the ugliness of the conflict through pictures that were difficult to deny or refute—such images, disseminated through the media, intentionally or otherwise, forged a path through which the dilemma of racism and segregation could enter the minds and hearts of many Americans, black and white.