Forgotten Civil Rights photographs find new life

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by Eric Ginsburg

It began with a suggestion.

At the end of Martin Berger’s book Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography, the UC Santa Cruz professor called for a counter-canon of photographs, one that would depict different narratives and messages than the widely circulated selection of photos of the struggle. Reading Berger’s conclusion, a friend said they had no idea what exactly that might look like, a comment that ultimately led Berger to pull together an exhibit of photos illustrating a fuller picture of what the Civil Rights Movement entailed.

On Monday, Berger spoke to a full lecture hall at Wake Forest University, down the hall from that photography exhibit, about how mainstream movement photos perpetuated a particular power dynamic and needed deeper analysis.

The widely distributed photos of the Civil Rights Movement at the time are often credited with winning over white support to the cause, highlighting the extremes of white violence towards black movement participants and the indignities of racial apartheid. But in some ways, Berger argued, images being spread in the mainstream press that allowed for significant but incremental change may have undermined more sweeping reformations to a society that benefits whiteness and white people .

A photo that was later cropped and edited to omit the four people standing in the background and focus on the praying boy.
A photo that was later cropped and edited to omit the four people standing in the background and focus on the praying boy.

Berger, an art professor, began his talk by moving through the most famous images of the era, explaining the historical context and how white editors and readers interpreted them. In shot after shot, black people were shown as victims, nonthreatening and in need of white saviors. The images started to become almost interchangeable, he said, noting that many looked like a kind of defeat when really they showed success.

The audience listened with rapt attention as Berger broke down how black and white readers interpreted photos differently, most poignantly with a photo of a 17-year-old boy being attacked by a police dog and grabbed by an officer. The photograph, taken in Birmingham in 1963, may be the most famous of the entire movement, but many people overlook the fact that the boy isn’t being passively attacked. Instead, Berger pointed out, he is trying to knee the dog in the jaw and is grabbing the officer’s wrist in an attempt to defend himself.

The image resonated with black readers as reminiscent of Nazi Germany while white press and readers tended to interpret the photo and the movement more ahistorically, Berger noted.

“So much is contingent on who is doing the looking,” Berger said.

In their pursuit of a very particular image of black victimhood, usually with the conscious aim of convincing Northern white liberals to support the Civil Rights Movement, white editors went beyond selectiveness in choosing images, venturing into the territory of manipulation. Berger highlighted one photo where the editor cropped and airbrushed out two black men who looked questionably angry to instead focus on a praying boy in the wake of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.

141219-ART-Civil Rights WFU-eg2With his counter-canon, which will be on display at Wake Forest until the semester ends Dec. 14 and then again from Jan. 5 through Feb. 8, Berger put forward images showing black strength, women, youth and joy that present a fuller picture of the freedom struggle: two men registering to vote, behind the scenes leader Ella Baker speaking powerfully outside the 1964 Democratic National Convention, a woman smiling from the back of a police wagon, a white volunteer and a local black man guarding a new community center with a shotgun, a woman resisting arrest by three officers, a sit-in at a Raleigh lunch counter, Emmett Till’s relative pointing out his killers in open court, a woman carrying home bags and a box during the Montgomery bus boycott.

“These are the kind of people that have been forgotten by history,” Berger said, people without whom there would have been no movement.

Accompanying each shot in the exhibit is “the boring text,” as he put it, that carefully explains the context of the photograph. Together, the images and descriptions paint a beautifully rich, more diverse and fuller understanding of the Civil Rights Movement. The images hold their own power, but the fact that mainstream white press ignored them adds more weight to each.

Berger saliently argued that editors often picked photos that would make it easy for whites to distance themselves from the extremist racists, allowing them to maintain their privileges and control while coming to the rescue. That dynamic let many whites off the hook for dismantling a broader system of racial privilege and power.

He warned the audience to be mindful of how that dynamic persists today in images of starving African children or police action in Ferguson, Mo.

Visit hanesgallery.wfu.edu for more info on Freedom Now!, the exhibit curated by Martin Berger at Wake Forest University’s Hanes Art Gallery.