Tag Archives: civil rights movement

Gospel Voices of Hope: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Image from Nothing But the Blues.

Today is International Women’s Day, and to honor and celebrate the occasion, for our final installation of our week looking at women in the blues, we’re focusing on two iconic women, renowned for the strength of their spirits and beliefs, and for their astounding music. “There’s something about the gospel blues,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe expressed, “that’s so deep the world can’t stand it.” We understand what she meant, though of course we certainly can stand Tharpe’s swinging spirituals, her rhythm and her unforgettably passionate voice. Tharpe was one of the first stars to bring gospel to a national audience, and she was stunning the crowds in the late 1930s with her “holy roller” sound.

Tharpe’s contemporary Mahalia Jackson, who started recording in 1937, had a fairly limited (but very devoted) audience until she was discovered by jazz enthusiasts in the 1950s, and she then ascended to high fame after her debut on the Ed Sullivan show in 1958. When the gospel tradition came to its height in the 1960s, Mahalia Jackson became synonymous with the music and its message, which became an integral part of the civil rights movement.

In Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press, author Jim O’Neal writes a chapter on the blues revival of the 1960s, and he talks about the importance of blues and gospel for the civil rights movement, from freedom songs to spirituals and gospel. At the time, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coordinator Worth Long sought musicians for the cause, to bring people together and raise community spirit. Long recalled:

The freedom singers would sing spirituals, gospel, and then they had some work song and blues element. The fact that it happened in jail for your freedom meant that it became sacred in a sense, no matter how you sang it. In jail, people sang a lot of blues, man, a lot of blues.

For International Women’s Day, we could all use some of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s and Mahalia Jackson’s open inspiration in confronting the continuing challenges women face. As Mahalia wrote in her 1966 autobiography: “Gospel songs are the songs of hope. When you sing them you are delivered of your burden. You have a feeling there is a cure for what’s wrong.” Thank you for spreading that hope, Mahalia—today we celebrate your memory and your legacy.

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Click here for more information on Nothing But the Blues, published by Abbeville Press.

Q&A with Steven Kasher, Part 3

“Sit-in at F.W. Woolworth’s lunch counter, Jackson, Mississippi, May 28, 1963,” by Fred Blackwell. Image from The Civil Rights Movement.

Steven Kasher is a photographer, curator, and author of the book The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press. This week, Kasher was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Abbeville Blog, and here, in the final portion of the interview, he talks about the role of photography and the continuing influence of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q. What role did photography play throughout the Movement?

A. You can mark the beginning of what we call the 60s—the era of protests and counterculture in America and elsewhere—to February 1960, when there was the sit-in in Greensboro, which started very small—just four college freshmen trying to get a cup of coffee in a Woolworth’s. Their action was a spark that kindled a fire that spread through the South very rapidly. Over a matter of weeks and months there were protests all over the South inspired by that first one. The tinder was there, and it had to be dry and ready to take the spark, and how exactly that happened is a very important part of the history. But the actions were spread through the news, the news media, and photography was a major part of that spreading of the word.

“Sit-in training session, Virginia State College, Petersburg, 1960,” by Eve Arnold. Image from The Civil Rights Movement.

As the movement progressed, it was constantly being written about, snowballing as it went on. At first, the media attention was purely repressed and skeptical, but as the Movement gathered power and also learned how to publicize themselves, the word got out more and more, and it quickly reached beyond the South—into the North and to the newspapers that government leaders and the President of the United States read, and people around the world read. The accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement were very real and very much due to the direct action of everyday black people.

Q. How did the Civil Rights Movement inspire or serve as a role model for subsequent causes and movements for social change?

A. It has been an extremely important—if not the most important—social movement of our time. The Civil Rights Movement was really the first movement of the 60s. It inspired directly the peace movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, the environmental movement. The people who started all these other movements very often were trained in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s really endless, the effect of the Civil Rights Movement.

Q. What do you see as the continuing impact and importance of these photographs, half a century later?

A. I hope that people will read the book and look at the pictures and be inspired to see that a few people banded together and protesting in brave and creative ways can change a lot of things. That, to me, is the continuing message of the Civil Rights Movement. To look at it and see a lot has been achieved, and you can’t help looking at it and seeing that a lot still remains to be done, when you look at America, which still has racism and still has tremendous inequality. So the story is there to inspire us, to work continuously to make more equality.

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Click here for more information on The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press.

Q&A with Steven Kasher, Part 2

“Danella Bryant praying during a demonstration outside the Traffic Engineering Building, Birmingham, May 5, 1963,” by Gary Haynes. 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. 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.

“Arrest of a demonstrator outside the Carver Theatre, Birmingham, May, 1963,” by Bruce Davidson. Image from The Civil Rights Movement.

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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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.

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.

 

I Am A Man

“Sanitation Workers Assembling for a Solidarity March, Memphis, March 28, 1968,” by Ernest Withers. From The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68.

Just one week before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. led 5,000 sanitation workers on this march on city hall in Memphis, Tennessee, as part of a strike in response to discrimination, low wages, the city’s refusal to recognize the workers’ union, and the death of two workers in a garbage packer, whose families’ received no worker’s compensation. In his captivating book, The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press, Steven Kasher recounts how photographer Ernest Withers helped to cut the sticks for the men’s placards, and he also recounts their significance:

With those men, when you say [union] ‘recognition,’ that means ‘We are being recognized.’ This is why they wore the sign ‘I AM A MAN.’

Kasher also describes the difficulties King faced in the aftermath of the event because of violence that broke out among young men during the march. Police response was extreme, and an officer shot and killed a sixteen-year-old boy; King was rushed away from the scene in distress at the violence. In response to the media’s criticism of his involvement in the march (the New York Times called it “a powerful embarrassment” and the St. Louis Globe-Democrat called Dr. King “one of the most menacing men in America today”), King had planned another march, better-organized so as to prevent any violent outbreak, for April 8, which he would not live to lead. King was dedicated to nonviolence, and on April 3, the day before his death, he addressed a meeting at Mason Temple in Memphis with haunting and inspirational words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. . . . And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

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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.

Freedom Summer, 1964

“Summer project volunteers singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, June 19, 1964” by Steve Schapiro, from The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. The volunteers are departing for Mississippi after completing their training sessions in Oxford, Ohio.

This week at the Abbeville Blog, in honor of Black History Month, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the great accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement and at the history that unfolds through its photographs. Steven Kasher’s powerful book The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press, captures the emotional force and the spirit of the movement in a collection of images that are often terrifying, and always evocative.

Planning for the Mississippi Summer Project of 1964 began in order to rally support and gather votes for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, who were to challenge the whites-only Democratic Party of Mississippi. Close to a thousand white volunteers from elite northern universities traveled to Mississippi to establish Freedom Schools, where students were taught how to overcome oppression and racism through personal awareness, community participation and political action.

From the start, Freedom Summer participants were faced with overwhelming violence: on the first day, three volunteers were murdered, and the violence—including kidnappings, countless beatings and at least four additional murders—continued unchecked against project workers. Steven Kasher describes the importance of “freedom songs,” which would motivate and inspire force in the Project’s volunteers and civil rights workers. “We Shall Overcome,” which became the movement’s anthem, was “sung with arms crossed, hands linked, bodies rocking from side to side. Time and again, the brave words and steady rhythm of the song fostered courage, unity, and hope.”

The Summer Project volunteers and workers succeeded because of their commitment and their community, and their legacy lives on. As Steven Kasher describes:

SNCC and the Freedom Summer Project practiced an existential politics of the personal in action. They taught a new kind of activism and a new way of life to an entire generation. The movements that came later in the 1960s—the black power movement, the peace movement, the student movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, the alternative-education movement, and others—were all their progeny.

To celebrate Black History Month, we’re offering a discount on this evocative book. 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 expires on February 28th, so purchase your copy now to take advantage of this great sale.

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Click here for more information on The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68, published by Abbeville Press.