Q&A with Steven Kasher: The Civil Rights Movement

“Picketing the Courthouse, Monroe, North Carolina, August 26, 1961,” by Declan Haun. Image from The Civil Rights Movement.

Steven Kasher is a photographer, curator, and author of The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press. This week, Kasher generously offered to answer a few questions about his book for the Abbeville Blog.

Q. What inspired you to begin work on your book The Civil Rights Movement? Was there a specific person or moment that sparked your interest in the subject?

A. In 1964, when I was ten years old, the cousin of my best friend was murdered in Mississippi. His name was Andrew Goodman, and our family was very close to the Goodmans. It was that traumatic event from my childhood, which I didn’t understand at the time but bookmarked for many years to try to study or research or understand. Then, in conjunction with work I was doing as a curator of photography, I got the opportunity to do some exhibitions based on first one archive of photojournalism called Black Star that had a large number of photographs about the Civil Rights Movement. So I did some exhibitions in 1993 commemorating the March on Washington, thirty years later. And then, I expanded that research to embrace the whole Civil Rights Movement and did an exhibition called Appeal to this Age, which launched in 1994 and traveled to seventeen public institutions—mostly museums, university museums and such around the country, also to England—and the book was done in conjunction originally with that exhibition.

Q. Can you tell us about your process of selecting photographs, and of selecting which histories to detail in your text?

A. My original plan was to do a book about the photography of the Civil Rights Movement, but when in discussion with Abbeville Press, we expanded the idea to a broader subject, which is the Civil Rights Movement per se, using the photographs as the entryway in. And so the photographs were a key component of the book from the beginning. The idea was to balance a succinct history of the modern Civil Rights Movement with a survey of the photography. So there’s a real attempt to find the best photographs but also use the photographs to tell the story as vividly as possible. There’s a real back and forth. In addition to that, there was the attempt to put in the most important pictures, some newly discovered pictures, little known pictures, and in the middle pictures that were necessary to illustrate the stories, the narrative.

Q. You include many powerful images in the book. Are there specific photographs that strike you as particularly moving or evocative of the time?

A. There’s one that always stands out for me, which was photographed in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1961, by a photojournalist named Declan Haun. It shows a young protester carrying a sign that says “Justice.” She’s staring at the camera very intensely. That picture was quite well known—it had been published a number of times, and it was certainly very powerful. But in research, a deeper story came out, a much more complicated story about why she was carrying that sign. That story is in the book, and it demonstrates quite a few things, including the creativity of the Civil Rights Movement in the local response, because that sign was made in reaction to a new law that had been put in place in this locale, in Monroe, NC, saying that a sign larger than a certain size couldn’t be made, and various other restrictions—so this was the kind of creative response and very effective activity going on, and then the photographer capturing it and taking that message to a wider audience. It illustrates how the role of photography was often to document what was going on and then to amplify the message that was being put out by the protesters, the activists.

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To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on The Civil Rights Movement. Click here and use code CIVIL RIGHTS 2013 at checkout to reduce the price to $25, a savings of over 40% on the list price. Please be sure to click the “redeem coupon” button after you enter code CIVIL RIGHTS 2013 to apply your discount. The code is valid through February 28th.

 

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