Steven Kasher is a photographer, curator, and author of The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press. Continuing our interview from last time, we asked more about the effect of the photography of the Civil Rights Movement.
Q. How do the photographs illuminate the history of the Civil Rights Movement? What do the photographs convey that words cannot express?
A. The emotion, for one, that you can read on people’s faces. The photographs can allow the viewer to enter into the space of the photograph and be part of it in a very visceral way. A photograph will, by giving these tiny details—a leaf of grass or the way somebody’s shirt has been plastered to his body because of the fire hose directed at him—by showing the details that a written narrative would never have the time to fill in, there are two things that happen: you believe in it—it’s taken as proof as having happened—and there’s a feeling component, you get more of a sense of exactly what it felt like to be there.
Q. What was the public’s response to the violence in these images? What was the effect of their prominence in the media during the Movement?
A. You can trace it in Life magazine, for example—and Life magazine was not just any magazine, it was the most-read journal in America, it was said to be seen by half the adults in America at its peak. It was, in the early 60s, reaching more people than television. The power of the still photography image in a magazine was extremely important—we kind of forget about it now because we live in the era of television, but the era of television covering the news was really just beginning at the time. So you have to look at both of these things together during the 60s and beyond—still images and video images.
So, in Life magazine, when you look at how they covered the protests in Birmingham, Alabama in May of 1963, you see a lot of violence. They called the story “They Fight a Fire That Won’t Go Out,” and they portrayed it very much as violence perpetrated by the protestors and then counter-violence by the police—they’re very skeptical of the Movement. It’s an eleven-page story, a huge story, with gigantic pictures because they spread over the two-page fold of this big magazine, and then there’s text as well—and I noted in the book that there is not a single black voice quoted in that article. So then you look at magazines just two years later, during the Selma marches in Alabama and there’s a total change in the attitude—now the protesters are portrayed as peaceful, protesters who are attacked for no good reason by the Alabama state troopers, who are compared by some to storm troopers.
So there was a real change in both the public sentiment and the way the major journals portrayed the Movement. To make a long story short, the protesters are seen as violent at first, and later it’s the repressive state forces that are seen as violent—and a lot of that is due to Martin Luther King’s philosophy of nonviolence, which he and other people were promulgating very loudly, and people were hearing that.
Q. And that was the same philosophy behind the sit-ins, is that right?
A. Yes, definitely. Things like sit-ins and marches were really not that common in the political dialogue before the Civil Rights Movement—we have to remember that. There were obviously other demonstrations, labor demonstrations in American history, but the forms that we consider pretty universal now were really being developed, a lot of them, in the Civil Rights Movement, and they were quite novel.
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