If you happen to be in Washington, D.C., between now and March 9, don’t miss the opportunity to see the photography exhibition “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956–1968,” on display at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center. Organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and co-sponsored by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this exhibition represents a milestone in museum exhibitions of Civil Rights photography.
With nearly 200 photographs taken by some 50 photographers, the viewer comes face to face with the awful brutality of racism and segregation, but also encounters the overwhelming dignity and steadfastness of citizens engaged in the struggle to realize what the poet Langston Hughes called “a dream deferred.”
Human suffering has been a photographic theme since shortly after photography was invented. Photographs made during the American Civil War forever linked the new medium with a keen-eyed appraisal of death as a worthwhile and important subject. Images of injustice—whether in the slums of New York, the jungles of the Belgian Congo, the Dustbowl migrant camps, or the concentration camps of a defeated Nazi Germany—helped redefine photography as an agent for social change.
But as “Road to Freedom” makes clear, it was the marriage of photography and the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s that helped propel photography to the prominence it now enjoys—alongside videography—as the most powerful medium of mass communications. From the day Rosa Parks stepped into the bus in Montgomery until the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, cameras were there to make a visual record.
Three Concurrent Trends
The marriage of photography and the Civil Rights movement came about thanks to three concurrent trends. The first was the increasing popularity of small, lightweight 35mm cameras—often fitted with wide-angle lenses—among news photographers accustomed to cumbersome 4 X 5 press cameras. This allowed for greater flexibility and mobility when working on location and proved invaluable for covering events such as marches and demonstrations, which tended to be fluid, fast moving, unpredictable, and often violent.
The second was the growing appetite among the nation’s newspapers and magazines—including Life, Look, Ebony, and Jet—for photographic images, and the response by the Associated Press and United Press International to satisfy that appetite, often through the use of mobile darkrooms and portable drum scanners. In fact, some of the photographs in “Road to Freedom” still have their typed wirephoto captions, on now-yellowed paper, affixed to their edges.
The third and perhaps most important trend was the growing awareness by leaders of the Civil Rights movement that media coverage was an invaluable aid to their cause. Years before “The whole world is watching” became a battle cry at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Civil Rights movement led the way in using the press to help level the playing field against an opponent armed with guns, cattle prods, dogs, fire hoses, and hundreds of years of history. It is telling that in one of the 1955 photographs of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus, the man seated behind her is a Look magazine reporter.
In 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chose a Morehouse College undergraduate named Julian Bond to be its director of communication. Bond recognized the power of photographs and established procedures for dealing with the press.
By 1963, when Bull Connor set the dogs loose in Birmingham, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) declared “Project C,” for “Confrontation,” knowing full well that the press—both print and TV—would be there with cameras in hand. A wall panel in “Road to Freedom” describes the resulting images as “indelible photographic evidence of the continuing brutality and injustices in the South.” In fact, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is seen by many as a direct result of the prior year’s well-documented events.
Among the photographers represented in “Road to Freedom”—many of whom were affiliated with Black Star—are Danny Lyon, Steve Schapiro, Joe Postiglione, Bill Hudson, James E. Hutton, Moneta Sleet Jr., Bruce Davidson, Charles Moore, Matt Herron, Bill Eppridge, and Morton Broffman, whose 1965 image of Dr. King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, greets visitors to the exhibition.
One of the most dramatic images in the exhibition was made on May 14, 1961, by Postiglione, a freelance commercial photographer who went by the name of “Little Joe.” It shows a fire-bombed Greyhound Bus, dark smoke pouring from its open door, framed by the foreground figures of its interracial passengers, who were part of a effort by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to test the effect of a recent Supreme Court antidiscrimination ruling.
AP and UPI both moved Postiglione’s photographs, and the Anniston (Ala.) Star bought seven from him and ran them the next day. According to Julian Cox, the High Museum of Art’s curator of photography, who wrote the main essay in the beautifully produced exhibition catalog, the Mother’s Day attack in Anniston “catapulted the Freedom Rides into the national consciousness.”
One of the most interesting aspects of “Road to Freedom” is the viewer’s ability to see how different photographers responded to the same event. On May 3, 1963, firemen in Birmingham turned their hoses on peaceful demonstrators in Kelly Ingram Park. Among the photographers present were Charles Moore, Bruce Davidson, Bob Adelman, and an unknown photographer.
Moore’s photographs—telephoto images of individuals being blasted by the water’s force but somehow overcoming its power with their humanity—received extensive play in Life magazine. Davidson chose to focus on the crowd and the chaos, whereas Adelman and the unknown photographer show us the scene from the firemen’s perspective.
In Adelman’s image, the firemen are looking at something outside the frame, seemingly oblivious to where their brutal stream of water is headed. The unknown photographer caught a moment when the stream of water made a near-perfect arc above the heads of four distant demonstrators, who gaze at the firemen (and us) in seeming disbelief.
The Power of Photography
On August 7, 1964, the family of James Chaney—a civil-rights worker who had been murdered in Mississippi along with Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—sat in a parked car en route to their son’s funeral. Life magazine photographer Bill Eppridge made three photographs of the family, but none was published.
One of those frames, however, is part of “Road to Freedom,” and the story of that image is also the subject of the “Indelible Images” column, written by Hank Klibanoff, that appeared in the December 2008 issue of Smithsonian magazine. The photograph shows a family of six, five of whom are staring straight ahead. Only Ben Chaney Jr., age 12, is looking at Eppridge—with a look so haunting that Eppridge’s recollection of Ben Jr. repeating three times “I’m gonna kill ‘em” is almost unnecessary.
This is the power of photography—to bear witness to ordinary and extraordinary events, to move people to action, and to establish a link, however fleeting or transitory, between viewer and subject.