JR: Face 2 Face
Visit the website of artist JR and watch the two videos posted on the site to learn about his Face 2 Face project.
Write a 1-2 paragraph reflection of what you learned about the artist and his project, and address the following:
- What was the project’s goal?
- How did the artist use photography for cultural diplomacy?
- How are the subjects depicted in the photographs?
- Where was the project executed?
- What is the significance of how the artist chose to hang the images? How does this contribute to achieving the project’s goal?
- What challenges did the artist face?
- What impact can this project have on local, national and international levels?
Chapter Theme to Current World News Event
Pick a theme discussed within Chapters 7-10 of the digital textbook and connect it to a current world news event (within past 12 months). You can choose to do this as either a written reflection or as a video, following the guidelines below. Respond to at least 2 other student reflections by the assignment deadline.
Written: Compose a thoughtful written reflection (minimum 150 words total) connecting a chapter theme to a current world news event (within past 12 months). Format the name of the current world news event in bold within the text body (as opposed to as a section header) and use specific details from it to connect back to the chosen chapter theme. Include the total word count on top of your submission. (In Microsoft Word go to Tools>Word Count)
Chapter 10: Civil Rights
Scope and Motivations of Lynchings of African Americans
Racial tensions intensified throughout the United States in the late 19th century, but were most palpable in the south. For African Americans living in the South, the brutalities and indignities of slave life were gone but the harshness of white race prejudice persisted. White Southerners resorted to lynching to control the newly freed slaves and resolve some of the anger they had toward free blacks. The verb “to lynch” means to put to death, usually by hanging, and was executed by mob action, or a so-called lynch mob. Starting in the 1880s and lasting until the late 1960s, lynching was a lethal punishment without legal sanction undertaken by groups of white Americans, to kill a person or a group of people (primarily African Americans) accused of some wrongdoing. Such wrongdoings ranged from serious crimes such as alleged theft, rape or murder to the violation by a black man of a local white custom or sensibility. In the South, of course, that social wrongdoing could be something as simple as a black man looking at a white woman, an action thought to be against the law and a serious violation of white supremacist convention in the region. The actual guilt or innocence of the victim(s) was of no concern to the lynch mob, which consisted of dozens to hundreds of white people who took the law into their own hands. The lynch mob served as the prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner of the victims, exacting a violent and cruel form of vigilante justice.
Although lynchings declined somewhat in the twentieth century, there were still years in the early twentieth century when racial troubles in America, such as the postwar year of 1919, witnessed spikes in the number of lynchings committed against African Americans in the United States. While the color-coded map below illustrates lynching predominated in the South, lynchings did occur all over the country including in California and the Midwest. Between 1882 and 1968, there were 4,743 people killed from lynchings and 3,446 (or 73 percent) of them were black men and women, illustrating that overwhelmingly the largest percentage of lynching victims were African Americans.
These, of course, were recorded lynchings; others were never reported beyond the town or city where the lynching occurred. From the 1890s through the 1930s, lynchings occurred regularly in southern and border states, despite the fact these state had laws prohibiting lynching and mob violence. Law enforcement officials simply refused to apprehend and prosecute lynchers, even when their identities were known, because race and retaining white supremacy overrode mob violence as the controlling issues for these local southern and border officials. The abandonment by the federal government of its oversight of constitutional protections in the late 1870s and the development of Jim Crow laws of the 1890s meant that white mobs of violence against southern blacks could commit lynchings with impunity. With Jim Crow laws prohibiting blacks from voting, public office, and jury service in most Southern and many border states, local officials disregarded their responsibility to protect African American lives from extrajudicial lynch mob violence.
Lynchings as Public Spectacles
Lynching played an important role in this country and was engrained in the social and cultural fabric, prompting historian Frank Shay to proclaim in 1969 that lynching was “as American as apple pie.” By the 1890s, lynchings had become public spectacles executed in front of crowds as large as 15,000 who gathered to watch. Newspapers carried advertisements promoting advance notice of lynchings, and railroad and travel agents sold excursion tickets and arranged accommodations for people wanting to attend the event. The public spectacle of lynchings was underlined by the central and open places where they were frequently held in town. For example, some lynchings occurred on the courthouse lawn, an obvious expression of the lynch mob’s complete disregard of the law. The white lynch mob would enter the jail and forcibly remove the individual or individuals from jail for the lynching. Trial by jury became impossible since the white lynch mob had already made a collective decision in their mind to convict the black individual(s), disregarding all of the conventional legal processes and protections involved. Law enforcement officials and private citizens alike supported, condoned or ignored the violence because of the complicity that had deeply rooted in society over time.
Lynchings acquired a festive atmosphere similar to contemporary concerts or sporting events, where even refreshment stands were provided for attendees and participants. In Going to the Territory (1986), writer Ralph Ellison describes lynching as “a ritual drama that was usually enacted … in an atmosphere of high excitement and led by a masked celebrant dressed in a garish costume who manipulated the numinous objects (lynch ropes, the American flag, shotgun, gasoline and whiskey jugs) associated with the rite as he inspired and instructed the actors in their gory task.” The people in attendance were not radical members of society, but rather average white citizens, some of which actively participated in the violence, while others stood by to witness the lynchings and did nothing to stop them. Following a lynching, mobs of people would eagerly run up to the black victim(s) to cut off a foot, fingers, toes, ears, lock of hair, or genitalia as souvenirs or trophies.
Photographers Promote Lynchings through the Burgeoning Postcard Industry
Photographers played a crucial role in commercializing lynchings as public spectacles. First, photographers would arrange with the organizers to stand in a favorable location in order to properly position the camera so they could capture a vivid and arresting shot of the lynching. This was important because these photographs would be made into postcards available for sale. In order for these postcards to be commercially successful, the photographer made significant effort to compose, frame, and light the shot so that the victims’ bodies and body parts could be recorded as sharply as possible. This often meant photographing lynchings in strong natural sunlight and utilizing an assistant who could hold the legs or arms of victim(s) to stabilize the body parts and prevent them from swinging when the photographs were taken.
Figure 10.2. Otis Noel Pruitt, Mississippi: The lynching of Bert Moore and Dooley Morton, 1920
Technological limitations of this period meant that photographers had to bring a portable darkroom with them and process their pictures on site. Consequently, photographers produced the lynching postcards on site and had them available for sale to interested customers. Such postcards depicted the African-American lynching victim as well as some of the crowd in attendance, but the executioner was never identified. While some of the postcards had descriptive captions including the date, location and alleged crime, others contained threats such as the word “Warning” or white supremacist prose. For example, the photographic postcard titled “Scene in Sabine County, Texas, June 15, 1908”, incorporates the poem “The Dogwood Tree” (1908). Beneath the hanging bodies of Jerry Evans, Will Johnson, Moss Spellman, Clevel Williams, and Will Manuel, are the following words:
The Dogwood Tree
This is only the branch of a Dogwood tree;
An emblem of WHITE SUPREMACY.
A lesson once taught in the Pioneer’s school,
That this is a land of WHITE MAN’S RULE.
The Red Man once in an early day,
Was told by the Whites to mend his way.
The negro, now, by eternal grace,
Must learn to stay in the negro’s place.
In the Sunny South, the Land of the Free,
Let the WHITE SUPREME forever be.
Let this a warning to all negroes be,
Or they’ll suffer the fate of the DOGWOOD TREE.
The production of lynching postcards was big business, and the sheer volume of these postcards passing through the US Mail Service for delivery prompted the USPS to act. In 1908, they amended the Comstock Act, which already banned the publication of “obscene matter as well as its circulation in the mails” to also include Section 3893, which banned materials “tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination”. Despite the amendment, the production and commercial sale of lynching postcards persisted, and people bypassed the postal regulations by mailing the explicit materials in envelopes or mail wrappers.
Educating White Children about African Americans and the Importance of Being Seen
Lynchings attracted the attendance and participation of white families of all social classes, including their children. White parents in the South felt that taking children out of school to attend these lynchings served an important educational role. Specifically, by bringing their children to these ritualized public spectacles, parents attempted to teach children that lynchings were effective, extrajudicial public instruments of interracial social control over Africans Americans.
Children attending these lynchings learned how their parents and elders “solved the problem” of African Americans who were suspected or charged with varying levels of wayward behavior or who had challenged white supremacist social conventions and customs. This educational lesson was reinforced through the production, sale, and distribution of postcards by photographers that depicted parents and their children eagerly participating in or witnessing the lynching of black male victims. Rather than turning aware from the camera in shame and embarrassment for their involvement in the torturous event, attendees desire to be seen. Standing alongside the victim as a hunter stands next to his kill, attendees of all ages look directly toward the photographer in order to have their faces clearly seen and recorded by the camera.
Figure 10.3. Postcard depicting the lynching of Lige Daniels, Center, Texas, USA, August 3, 1920. The back reads, “He killed Earl’s grandma. She was Florence’s mother. Give this to Bud. From Aunt Myrtle.”
Photographing Lynchings to Affirm Social Control and Humiliation African Americans by Southern Whites
Lynching also served the political purpose of sending a powerful and lethal political message from white Americans to African Americans about the social and political control of whites over the lives of African Americans in the South and many border states from the end of Reconstruction until the 1960s. In a manifestation of racism and sexism, contemporary advocates of lynching asserted that this form of lethal, extrajudicial killing protected white women from black male rapists. Researchers and journalists demonstrated, however, that only one-quarter of lynching victims were accused of rape or attempted rape. White people participating in lynching of black males desired to humiliate their victims as much as possible before the observers. Having white women participate in a lynching contributed to the humiliation suffered by black male victims. However to maximize a victim’s humiliation, a black male would often be stripped naked, whipped, burned and/or have body parts cut off (particularly the genitalia) by the white mob. Such was the case for Jesse Washington, a 17-year old farmhand who was castrated, and had his ears and fingers cut off in front of an audience of over 10,000 attendees, including the mayor and chief of police. Observers cheered the executioners on as they watched the victim’s body be lowered and raised onto a burning fire for about two hours. During the time that this torturous event unfolded, a professional photographer took pictures as Washington was burned alive. Postcards, such as the one below depicting the charred corpse of Will Stanley taken on July 30, 1915, illustrate the humiliation and extreme torture inflicted on black male victims. On the back of this postcard is written, “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.” A local newspaper recounts the event:
“A mob of 10,000 took Will Stanley, a Fort Worth Negro, from the officers soon after midnight this morning and marching him to the public square through the principal business streets, proceeded to cremate him in full view of the populace, which included many women, standing on men’s shoulders to witness the grewsome sight.
All along the route the Negro fought savagely and was kicked and beaten by the mob. Arriving on the square a pyre was constructed of dry goods boxes, barrels and other inflammable stuff secured from the rear of business houses in nearby alleys. Trace chains were used to shackle the Negro.” – Fort Worth, Tex., Record, July 31, 1915.
Figure 10.4. Postcard (front and back) depicting the lynching of Will Stanley, Temple, Texas, USA, July 30, 1915. The back reads, “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”
Lynching Photographs Inspire Protest Works by Writers and Performing Artists
Photographs of lynchings and photographic postcards of lynchings also moved artists and performers to create poems, songs, and other artistic works that decried these contemporaneous lynchings. For example, Abel Meeropol was a Jewish-American schoolteacher and songwriter who one day saw a photograph of a lynching of two black men in Indiana. The photograph, taken by studio photographer Lawrence Beitler in 1930, depicts a large crowd of men, women, and children surrounding the hanging bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. The image was hugely successful and sold thousands of copies, which Beitler stayed up for 10 days and nights to print. The image, which became the most iconic photograph of lynching in America, had a different effect on Meeropol, who once said that the photograph “haunted” him “for days.” He was so emotionally disturbed by this image that he felt compelled to write a poem titled “Bitter Fruit,” which he penned under his pseudonym Lewis Allan and published in a teacher’s union magazine in 1937. The poem, which expressed his disgust over American racism, was set to music under the revised title “Strange Fruit”, and with the help of his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, it was performed at protest rallies in New York City in the 1930s.
Fig 10.5: Lawrence Beitler, Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, Aug 7, 1930. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images
The lyrics describe two bodies that are hanging from the tree as strange fruit, and serve as a potent, vivid protest against the lynching of African Americans. The lyrics caught the attention of African American jazz singer Billie Holiday, who wanted to record it but her record refused because of the song’s provocative lyrics and politically sensitive subject matter. Nevertheless, she decided to go ahead and record “Strange Fruit,” with another label in 1939, and it became one of the most popular and influential songs of Holliday’s repertoire and a famous protest song against the lynching of African Americans. Although photographs of lynchings were produced for the purpose of financial gain, they subsequently stirred emotional responses by notable artists, writers, and educators to produce artistic works that expressed their personal revulsion at the gruesome practice of lynching African Americans in the United States.
Contemporary Efforts by Artists to Preserve the Visual Legacy of Lynching in the West and the South
Several contemporary visual artists have attempted to create visual works of art that are designed to educate Americans about the history of lynching in the United States. For example, Ken Gonzales-Day, as part of his “Erased Lynching” series, has created a collection of digitally modified photomurals and photographs based on the original lynching postcards, souvenir cards, and photographs that widely circulated in America from the late 19th century through the 1930s. In this series, Gonzalez-day digitally erased the victim and rope from the historical lynching image, leaving the tree or telegraph pole and the crowd. With the victim removed from the scene, our attention is focused on the individuals participating and witnessing the execution. This shift of focus from victim to participant, encourages us to also consider the larger social conditions that made such extrajudicial killings possible. For his series, “Hang Trees,” Gonzales-Day researched the lynchings that occurred in California, and photographed the specific trees and lynching sites where Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and African Americans had been lynched by their white perpetrators. On his website, Gonzales-Day has also produced a map of lynchings in the Greater Los Angeles region where one can visit and remember the victims at the actual sites where they were publicly lynched.
Figure 10.6. Ken Gonzalez-Day, Canyon City, Co. (Geo Witherell, 1888), Erased Lynching Series
James Allen is a white Southerner from Atlanta who produced a website called “Without Sanctuary,” which displays his collection of approximately 100 photographs and souvenir postcards of American lynchings occurring mostly, but not exclusively, in the South. All but a handful of the lynching victims depicted on the website were African American men and women. Most of the lynching photographs were taken by professional photographers during or shortly following the lynching. The website also permits the viewer to experience the lynching images as a movie with narrative comments by Allen. The photographs have been published as a book, Without Sanctuary, which includes essays about the history and legacy of lynchings in America by noted writers and public figures such as Hilton, Leon Litwack, and Congressman John Lewis, who was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These noble efforts by visual artists, historical photography collectors, and writers to memorialize the victims of lynchings in the United States by presenting these digitally modified and original photographs and postcards in exhibits, books, and catalogues will help educate many Americans about this shameful and largely forgotten legacy of extreme racial violence in the country.
Photography Ignites and Documents the American Civil Rights of the 1950s and 1960s: The Lynching of Emmett Till
Photography played a crucial role in igniting the and documenting the U.S. civil rights movements in the 1950s and the 1960s, raising public consciousness of the violence and racial discrimination of African Americans subject to racial segregation laws and extrajudicial enforcement of laws and white supremacy customs in the southern states of the nation. Photographers captured harrowing images of racist organizations such as the Klux Klan, the drive for voter registration and protesters’ sit-ins at restaurants, bus stations, and department stores, and various marches and rallies across the South. Their photographs were published in mainstream publications read by white Americans such as Life, Time, and Look, in an increasing number of picture magazines targeted at African Americans such as Ebony and Jet, and at local African American urban newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and New York’s Amsterdam News. These photographers often placed themselves in the same dangerous physical and legal exposure as the civil right activists, who frequently experienced arrest and violent treatment by law enforcement authorities in the South and extrajudicial killings by white Southerners opposed to integration and civil rights.
The year 1955 represented a turning point for the post-World War II civil rights movement in the United States. In 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American woman, learned about nonviolent civil disobedience as a strategy toward equality through a course in “Race Relations” that she completed at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Later that year, on December 1, Parks refused to give her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus to a white man, a violation of the city’s racial segregation ordinances, and subsequently was arrested. An African-American boycott of the municipal bus company was initiated on Dec 5, 1955 and resulted in serious economic distress for the city transit system. After 381 days, the boycott concluded on Dec 20, 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision declaring Montgomery’s segregated public bus seating unconstitutional, Consequently, the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks and the successful ensuing Montgomery Bus Boycott are often taught in school as the beginnings of the postwar civil rights movement. Actually, it was the lynching and tragic story of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and a photograph of his badly mutilated body that ignited the civil rights movement.
Emmett Till was an African American boy born to working-class parents on the South Side of Chicago. When he was fourteen years old, Till traveled to rural Money, Mississippi to spend the summer with his relatives and earn some money picking cotton with his Mississippi cousins in the agricultural fields. Till had been advised by his mother that whites in the South could react violently to any behavior by a black boy perceived to be a violation of white, southern customs and traditions including any action that could be interpreted as “disrespect” for the supreme status of white Southerners. Till arrived in Money, Mississippi on August 21, 1955, and resided with his great-uncle, Moses Wright, a sharecropper, spending his days assisting with the cotton harvest. On August 24, Till and a group of other teens, including his cousins, traveled to a local grocery store after a day of working in the fields. Accounts of what precisely occurred next vary according to different witness accounts. Some witnesses asserted that one of the other boys dared Till to speak with store’s cashier, Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. It was also contemporaneously reported that Till whistled at, touched the hand or waist of, or flirted with Mrs. Bryant as he departed the store. Regardless, Till and his cousins kept the incident involving this white, married woman secret from his great-uncle, hoping it would just blow over. Carolyn Bryant’s husband, Roy Bryant, was out of town at the time, trucking shrimp from Louisiana to Texas. In the ensuing days, however, an exaggerated tale of Till’s “disrespectful” and “shameful” actions towards Carolyn Bryant had spread through grapevine of the white community of Money, until it reached the ears of Mr. Bryant upon his return to town on August 27. In the early morning hours of August 28, Roy Bryant, and J.W. Milam, Bryant’s half -brother, forced their way into the home of Till’s great uncle and kidnapped Till at gunpoint. Bryant and Milam brutally beat the boy, gouging out one of his eyes and crushing his forehead on one side from a large metal fan they wielded against Till. Bryant and Will then took him to the banks of the Tallahatchie River, where they killed him with a single gunshot to the head. The two men then tied the teen’s body to a large metal fan with a length of barbed wire before dumping the corpse into the river. On August 31, Till’s decomposing and mutilated corpse was discovered in the river. His face was unrecognizable from the murder, and positive identification was possible only due to the fact Till was wearing a monogrammed ring that had belonged to his father.
Following an indictment of Bryant and Milam for murder, a dispute developed between the local sheriff and Till’s mother, Mamie Bradley, over the burial of Till’s decomposing body. Over the objections of the Mississippi sheriff, who wanted Till buried quickly in Mississippi, Bradley demanded that her son’s corpse be returned to Chicago. The sheriff reluctantly agreed, but required the mortician sign an order prohibiting the casket from being opened. As soon as the casket arrived in Chicago, however, Mrs. Bradley demanded the casket be opened so she could be sure it was actually her son and confident that he was not alive and hiding from law enforcement authorities in Mississippi. After studying the hairline and teeth, Mrs. Bradley positively identified the body as young Emmet’s, and proclaimed that the nation must view the racially motivated brutality that had been mortally inflicted on her only son. In furtherance of that objective, Mrs. Bradley insisted there would be an open-casket funeral. Tens of thousands of people lined the street outside the mortuary in Chicago to view Till’s mutilated body and days later thousands more attended his funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. Many people passed out after viewing Till’s hideous body at the funeral home and at the church.
Figure 10.7. Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Bradle, ca 1950
Figure 10.8. David Jackson, Emmett Till, 1955
It was, however, this highly publicized photograph of the horribly mutilated corpse of Till that actually sparked the civil rights movement. Ms. Bradley authorized photographs of the mutilated corpse of her son to be taken and published in the popular black magazine Jet and the black newspaper Chicago Defender in September of 1955. widely distributed by African American publications. These photographs of Till were subsequently published by national, popular magazines that were widely distributed and read by whites. Ms. Bradley had decided that everyone–blacks and whites, and Southerners and non-Southerners–must see the pictures of her son’s dismembered body to believe and appreciate the brutality and horror of what her lynched son endured in Mississippi. Moreover, Ms. Bradley asserted that only by viewing photographs of her son’s mutilated corpse would black and white Americans be emotionally moved to politically address the racial bigotry, inhumane suffering, and violent deaths stemming from the extrajudicial enforcement of the Jim Crow system of racial segregation and white supremacy in the South. Ms. Bradley accurately predicted the impact the photographs of her son’s mutilated corpse would have on African Americans in the North and the South and their white liberal allies. After the photographs of the brutally murdered Emmett Till were published first in the black weekly Jet magazine and then in popular, national magazines for whites such as Time, Look, and Life, the Emmett Till lynching became a rallying cry for black Americans and their white allies to demand “something be done in Mississippi” and the Deep South about the violent, extrajudicial enforcement of Jim Crow segregation and white cultural supremacy. Moreover, the photographs of Till motivated ordinary black and white Americans, during the 1950s and 1960s, to organize and participate in protests and demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts, and acts of civil disobedience against racial segregation in the South, to engage in political advocacy for federal civil rights legislation to be enacted by Congress, and to initiate lawsuits in federal courts challenging the constitutionality of racial segregation and discrimination in public accommodations, employment, schools, and universities throughout the South.
An all-white jury of Mississippians acquitted Bryant and Milam for the murder of Till on September 23, 1955, despite contrary eyewitness and physical evidence implicating both of them in Till’s murder. (In a subsequent magazine article published in Look magazine in 1956, the financially compensated Bryant and Milam admitted to their respective roles in Till’s murder, but could not be tried again for murder because of the constitutional bar of double jeopardy.) The unjust jury verdict reinforced the belief among many African Americans in the North and the South, and their white liberal allies that the brutality of white supremacy had to be challenged directly in Mississippi and throughout the South to prevent the continued killings and maiming of blacks, including children. Following the not guilty verdict rendered by the Till jury, Roy Wilkins of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) proclaimed to a large crowd of African Americans gathered in Harlem in New York City shortly after the acquittal of Bryant and Milam:
Mississippi has decided to maintain white supremacy by murdering children. The killer of the boy felt free to lynch because there in the entire state no restraining influence of decency, not in the state capital, among the daily newspapers, the clergy, not among any segment of the so-called lettered citizens. (Juan Williams, Eyes on the Prize, 52.)
Yet, it was the widely seen grisly photographs of the lynched Emmet Till, even more than the anti-climactic trial and acquittal of his murderers, that propelled many northern and southern African Americans and their white, liberal allies to organize protests and demonstrations, conduct, direct actions of civil disobedience in the South and engage in political and legal advocacy that confronted the segregationist Jim Crow, white supremacist culture of Mississippi and the South. The photographs and story of Emmet Till even raised the social and political consciousness of blacks boys and girls around the same age of Till in Mississippi and the South. In her autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, the African-American Mississippi writer and civil rights activist Anne Moody recalls learning of Emmet Till’s death, as a teenager, through the infamous postmortem photographs of Till and through discussions of Till’s murder with fellow classmates and her mother. Moody wrote:
Before Emmett Till’s murder, I had known the fear, of hunger, hell, and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me–the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears. I know once I got food, the fear of starving to death would leave. I was also told if I were a good girl, I wouldn’t have to fear the Devil or hell. But I didn’t know what one had to do or not do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably just being a Negro period was enough I thought. (Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi, 134)
Finally, it should be noted that less than three months after the publication of the photographs that depicted the brutality of the lynching of Emmet Till, African American civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks committed her momentous act of civil disobedience against racially segregated public transportation while riding a Montgomery, Alabama municipal bus on December 1, 1955. This courageous, pivotal act of civil disobedience by Parks and the initial mobilization of the entire civil rights movement would not have been possible without the emotional spark set by the widely published photographs of fourteen-year-old, lynched Emmett Till, whose murder dramatically illustrated the horror of enforced Jim Crow white supremacy in the South.
Ernest C. Withers: Photographer and FBI Informant
The man who took the famous photographs of Till’s mutilated body lying in the open casket was Ernest Withers. Withers, a noted African-American photographer, covered the entire trial of Till’s murderers for Life magazine. In addition, he photographed and followed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. throughout his civil rights organizing and movement activities in the South, took pictures of many of the countless African Americans who courageously marched, demonstrated, voted, sat in segregated restaurants, and enrolled in segregated schools and colleges, and photographed notable African-American musicians, singers, and players in the Negro baseball league. In 2011, a museum dedicated to his civil rights and African-American-themed photography opened in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Shortly before the museum’s grand opening in 2011, a newspaper investigation in the Memphis Commercial Appeal revealed that he was an FBI informant, providing the federal law enforcement agency with information about specific information about certain civil rights gatherings, marches, demonstrations, and meetings between Dr. King and suspected black militants shortly before King’s assassination in Memphis in April of 1968. A follow-up investigation by the journalist Daniel Wolff, who examined released FBI informant files relating to Withers, claimed the photographer had not provided any useful confidential or compromising information to the FBI about Dr. King or his civil rights organizing plans and allies in Memphis. Instead, Wolff claimed the FBI files showed Withers had mostly provided some background information between the years of 1968 and 1970 about the activities and plans of a violent, militant local civil rights organization called the Invaders. This Memphis group was advocating looting, vandalism, and violence to advance African American civil rights and economic welfare and undercutting the nonviolent strategy of King and others in the civil rights movement. Moreover, Withers, in a monograph published for an exhibition of his works in 200 at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia discussed the scope of his relationship with the FBI. The photographer asserted that FBI agents regularly shadowed and questioned him stating, “I never tried to learn any high-powered secrets [from civil rights leaders such as King]. It would have just been trouble… [The FBI] was pampering me to catch whatever leaks dropped so I stayed out of meetings where decisions were being made.” The full scope and importance of the information Wither did provide to the FBI about Dr. King, other civil rights leaders, and the activities of mainstream and militant civil rights organizations remains unclear and disputed. Regardless, sufficient evidence has been uncovered to demonstrate Withers was providing some information to the FBI, even if it was limited and mostly innocuous, about the activities and movements of civil rights leaders and organizations. This disturbing fact may complicate Withers’ artistic legacy as a photographer of notable civil rights leaders such as King and important events of the civil rights movement. Namely, we should consider whether our artistic perceptions of Withers’ civil rights photography require an analytic reexamination of his works in light of the artist’s covert political actions. For example, it has been suggested by critics of Withers that his alleged status as an FBI informant has undermined his intention to document and dramatize the historical significance, painful human struggles, and emotional resonance of critical events and key players in the civil rights movement.
Figure 10.9. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Reverend Ralph Abernathy on First Desegregated Bus Ride. Montgomery, Alabama, December 21, 1956, 1956 (gelatin silver print), Withers, Ernest C. (1922-2007) / Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, USA / gift of Harvey and Sondra Burg / Bridgeman Images
Figure 10.10. I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28, 1968, printed 1994 (gelatin silver print), Withers, Ernest C. (1922-2007) / Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas, USA / Museum purchase funded by the African American Art Advisory Association / Bridgeman Images
Gordon Parks: Path-breaking Photographer of African- American Life in the mid-late 20th Century
Gordon Parks, the African-American son of a tenant farmer, was born in 1912. Parks experienced the grinding poverty, racial taunts and indignities of white children and adults, and the segregated schools and public accommodations encountered by African Americans living in Fort Scott, Kansas. When he was just a teenager, his mother died suddenly and Parks’ father told him to move to St. Paul, Minnesota to live with his sister and her family. Shortly after his arrival, Parks and his brother-in-law became engaged in a heated conflict, and he was ordered to leave his brother-in-law’s home. Over the next several years, Parks found a series of periodic jobs, including playing piano in a brothel and traveling with a professional musical band as its pianist. When his band gig ended after the bandleader absconded with the proceeds of their earnings, Parks was required to work menial cleaning jobs and earn meager, irregular wages. Eventually, Parks found steady work as a waiter for the North Coast Limited, a transcontinental train. He married his girlfriend, Sally Avis, and began a family.
Parks’ work as a waiter on the transcontinental train introduced him to photography, as some of the magazines the passengers left behind contained documentary photographs by notable photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, and Walker Evans. Parks, still suffering emotionally from the cruelties he experienced as an adolescent and young adult, desired a voice to help him escape these cruelties. In 1938, Parks bought a Voightlander Brilliant camera for $7.50 that he “hoped to use against a warped past and an uncertain future.” Parks soon discovered he had a natural talent for photography and received recognition for his work as a portrait and fashion photographer from Eastman Kodak, who later sponsored his first photographic exhibitions. After moving to Chicago, Parks continued to support himself through fashion photography, but also began to chronicle the impoverished life and social and economic struggles of the African American community on the South Side of Chicago. These latter photographs earned him a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, which led to Parks becoming named in 1942 the first African American photographer to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The FSA was a New Deal era federal government agency of President Franklin Roosevelt that sponsored a major documentary project chronicling the social and economic struggles of Americans displaced by the Great Depression. Photographers such as Parks, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans photographed Americans struggling to survive and eke out a subsistence existence during the late 1930s and early 1940s in the face of overbearing social and economic hardship. On his first day on his new job in Washington, D.C., Parks was tasked by Roy Stryker, the director of the FSA documentary photography project, with experiencing the personal humiliation and frustration of racial segregation and discrimination. Specifically, Stryker requested that an unwitting Parks attempt to buy a movie ticket, eat a meal, and purchase clothing, at commercial establishments in Washington, D.C., which was a deeply segregated city during the early 1940s. Humiliated and frustrated, Parks returned to the FSA office to report to Stryker that he was denied entry at all of these commercial establishments in Washington, D.C. because of his race and questioned why Stryker requested he attempt to accomplish these racially impossible tasks. Stryker then challenged Parks to use his camera to photograph images that would reveal the social and economic limitations, inhumanity, and challenges encountered by African Americans because of legally enforced racial segregation. In addition, Stryker urged Parks to use his camera to help him become aware of the racial problems of Washington, D.C. and to effect social change concerning racial segregation and bigotry in the nation. Stryker advised Parks:
Well, it’s not enough to take one person’s picture and label it Bigot. You have to get at the source of their bigotry. And that’s not easy. The camera becomes a powerful weapon when put to good use. Talk to other black people who have spent their lives here. Their experiences might help you become more aware of racial problems of the city. Go through these [FSA photo documentary] picture files. The photographers who produced them are saying a lot about what’s happening in the country today. ((Parks, Half Past Autumn, 32.)
The immediate artistic result stemming from Stryker’s helpful strategic advice was Parks’ production of American Gothic (1942), one of Parks’ most iconic and controversial images. Parks’ photographic work arose from a personal encounter he had with Ella Watson, an African American Charwoman who was mopping the floors at the FSA in Washington, D.C. when Parks struck up a conversation with her. After Watson related her lifetime experience of bigotry, racial animus, and despair to Parks, he received her consent to photograph her. Parks composed the picture with Watson standing in front of an large American flag draped from the ceiling to the floor, placing her mop in one hand and her broom in the other, and then instructed her to stare intently into the lens without even the trace of a smile. After showing the developed photograph to Stryker in his office, Stryker responded, “Well, you’re catching on, but that picture could get us all fired.” Stryker comprehended that this photograph would prompt political controversy because it would reasonably be interpreted as a searing, sardonic social parody on the hopeful promise and hardworking rewards of the Midwestern version of the American Dream, which had been famously and faithfully represented by white Iowan Grant Wood in his painting, American Gothic (1930). In Woods’ American Gothic, a fictitious white father and unmarried daughter are presented as the religious descendants of rigorous pioneers who first cultivated the Midwestern soil to achieve the American Dream of hardworking, frugal agricultural success. The father is dressed in his farming overalls and unmarried daughter wears prim, traditional conservative dress and family pendant. In addition, the father is firmly grasping his manual pitchfork, a symbol of the key instrument in the family’s agricultural success. Moreover, the forceful, overt frontal composition of the father and the daughter, the father’s firm grasp on his pitchfork , and the humble, modest, and old-fashioned Carpenter Gothic style of their house painted in the background emphasize the accomplishments of a hardworking, frugal, wholesome, and Christian white father and daughter who have achieved a Midwestern agricultural version of the American Dream. On the other hand, Parks’ version of American Gothic conveys the politically loaded social message that the American Dream, symbolized by the ceiling-to-floor American flag in the background, remains outside the grasp of African American women such as Watson. Parks uses the enormous American flag in the background and the grasped working tools of menial, low-income, and dead employment to demonstrate that white racial supremacy and racial segregation, which was legally enforced even in nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., prevented African American women such as Watson from achieving an urban version of the American Dream. Initially, Parks’ American Gothic was withheld from publication by Stryker and the FSA because of its critical political statement about the severe racial limitations and restrictive boundaries on employment and upward social and economic mobility endured by African Americans in the country. However, eventually Parks’ American Gothic was released by the FSA, and it became widely exhibited and commented upon throughout the country and around the world during the second half of the twentieth century. Today, it is considered Parks’ most well-known image.
Figure 10.11. Gordon Parks, American Gothic. Portrait of government cleaning woman Ella Watson, August 1942. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Figure 10.12. Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930. Wood, Grant (1891-1942) / The Art Institute of Chicago, IL, USA / Friends of American Art Collection / Bridgeman Images
Finally, Parks photographed many different facets of African American life and culture during the 1940s and through the 1970s. As a staff photographer for Life magazine, the first African American to retain that position, Parks was recognized for his depictions of urban black gangs and riots, the culture and ways of life of Harlem in New York City, black nationalists, black fighter pilots, and, most notably, iconic images of racial segregation and the civil rights movement. He photographed segregated water fountains, restaurant entrances and exits, and public playgrounds, which legally prohibited black schoolchildren from playing in with their white schoolmates. In addition, Parks photographed the images connected to the racial doll experiments of African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1939 and 1940 that served as powerful social scientific evidence of the psychological harm of racial segregation to black schoolchildren. “I chose my camera as a weapon against all things I dislike about America—poverty, racism and discrimination,” Parks once said. Later during his lifetime, Parks wrote a coming-of age adolescent novel, The Learning Tree (1963), loosely based on his own experiences as a child and adolescent in Kansas, composed several autobiographies, produced multiple books of combined poetry and photography, and became a director of major motion picture films including Shaft (1971). This famous film spawned the genre of African American action films of the 1970s and early 1980s known as Blaxploitation. Parks, a true Renaissance man who died in 2006, continues to enjoy an esteemed artistic reputation as a superb documentary photographer with the National Gallery of Art recently exhibiting a retrospective exhibit of his photographs of his early years, “Gordon Parks: The New Tide, Early Work, 1940-1950.”
Photographers Capture the Public School Integration Travails of the “Little Rock Nine”
In response to legal pressure exerted by attorneys from the National Association of the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), the Little Rock, Arkansas school board in 1955 adopted a limited, gradual integration plan for one of its segregated public schools, Little Rock Central High School to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In Brown, the Court had declared segregated public schooling to be unconstitutional in the United States and ordered that all local public school systems should be integrated with “all deliberate speed,” offering an ambiguous, open-ended directive to local school boards about the speed, scope, and schedule for the implementation of its momentous judicial decision. The Little Rock school integration plan postponed implementation to September 1957, limited integration to just one school, Little Rock Central High School, and involved only permitting nine African American students—the path breaking “Little Rock Nine”–to integrate one high school of about 2,000 white high school students. Despite the limited, phased-in nature of the public school integration plan in Little Rock, the board’s school integration plan sparked fierce and sometimes violent demonstrations from white parents, white schoolchildren, and white members of the Little Rock community opposed to black schoolchildren attending the same high school as white children. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had declared his unabashed opposition to school integration and his commitment to violate a federal court order requiring desegregation of the Little Rock Central High School, and ordered about 270 soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard to block the school’s front entrance to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School. The fierce conflict in Little Rock drew international attention over public school integration in the South with television and newspaper reporters and documentary photographers drawn to cover the confrontation among state authorities, federal court authority, civil rights advocates, and the path breaking African American students who composed the “Little Rock Nine.” Advised by the Little Rock school board to skip the first day of school because of the imminent threat of violence, the nine African plan to attend school on the second day, September 4, 1957, accompanied by a small interracial group of ministers. Elizabeth Eckford was supposed to arrive with the other eight students, but because she didn’t have a phone in her home, she wasn’t notified that a carpool had been arranged by Daisy Bates of the NAACP. Unaware of these arrangements, Eckford arrived on her own as the sole black student amidst a white mob gathered in front of the school determined to prevent integration of the school despite a federal court order mandate. As the crowd moved in closer to Eckford, they chanted, “Two, four, six, eight! We don’t want to integrate!”
Photojournalist Will Counts made an iconic photograph of Eckford as she tried making her way through the hostile crowd of protestors that began shouting, spitting, hurling stones, and threatening murder. One of the journalists covering the event even reported hearing: “Lynch her! Lynch her!” “No nigger bitch is going to get in our school!” “Go home, nigger!” Someone else shouted, Drag her over to this tree!” In the background of this photograph, one can see a young white, female student, Hazel Bryan, with her eyes narrowed, brow furrowed and teeth clenched. She appears visibly outraged and upset at the prospect of Eckford and the other members of the “Little Rock Nine” attending her previously segregated high school. She was “screaming, just hysterical,” Benjamin Fine of The New York Times later described her. Counts’ photograph captured Bryan’s hatred as she screamed “Go home, nigger! Go back to Africa!” at the remarkably composed and dignified Eckford. When the other eight students arrived, they tried making their way to the entrance of Little Rock High School, where they were confronted by the National Guard who turned them away. After subsequent efforts by President Eisenhower, Governor Faubus, and Little Rock’s mayor, Woodrow Mann, to negotiate a peaceful, legal conclusion to the conflict over integration at the high school failed to come to fruition, President Eisenhower reluctantly mobilized the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army to Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard in late September 1957 to guarantee state compliance with the court-ordered integration of Little Rock Central High School and permit the “Little Rock Nine,” including Eckford, to attend the school safely during the 1957-58 school year.
Figure 10.13. Will Counts, Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan, 1957 September 4
In 1997, on the 40th anniversary of the integration of Little Rock Central High School, Counts arranged a reunion of Eckford and Bryan in order to facilitate a reconciliation between the two adult women whose lives had become intertwined by the iconic picture the photographer had shot during the height of the public school integration crisis in Little Rock. During the intervening decades, Bryan had guarded her privacy fiercely, but had quietly renounced her opposition to integration and became politically progressive , branching out into peace activism and social work including teaching maternal skills to unmarried black women. Eckford, on the other hand, had become a prominent public figure as an adult. She shared her personal experiences as one of the “Little Rock Nine” in frequent public speeches and appearances, seeking to inspire social activism on behalf of civil rights by young people. For several years, a gradual reconciliation and the beginnings of friendship emerged between these two adult Arkansas women. Bryan apologized to Eckford for her hostile opposition to the integration of Little Rock High School and civil rights for African Americans. Moreover, the two women agreed to be interviewed jointly by journalists for news stories and documentaries and appear before school groups together to discuss and reflect on their historical experiences as children of the civil rights era in the South and how they progressively evolved in their attitudes about race and reconciled with each other as adults. Eckford and Bryan even appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” together to discuss their intertwined personal histories as racial antagonists during high school and to reveal their recent reconciliation and burgeoning friendship. However, the media spotlight became too intense for the private Bryan and strained her emerging friendship with Eckford. Bryan decided to try to recapture her privacy and retreated from public view, ceasing to agree to further press interviews or join Eckford in any additional public educational appearances with Eckford. Still, the successful efforts of Counts to facilitate a reconciliation of sorts between Eckford and Bryan– forty years after he shot the famous photograph capturing their racial antagonism–offered a provocative and meaningful lesson for whites and African Americans seeking to overcome the legacy of racial bigotry, violence, and hatred. Specifically, the reconciliation demonstrated that even people with opposing racial beliefs and fraught, interconnected histories, such as Eckford and Bryan, can forgive each other as adults, change their rigid views about race, and mature as adults to respect the common humanity that each embody.
Charles Moore: A Press Photographer Who Recorded Some of the Momentous Public Events of the Civil Rights Movement
As a white photographer for the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser newspaper and Life magazine between 1958 and 1965, Charles Moore documented some of the most important demonstrations of the civil rights movement. Some of his most famous images depict African American demonstrators being beaten by Birmingham, Alabama police, attacked by police dogs, and subjected to high-pressure fire-hose water barrages ordered by the notorious Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor to intimidate and disperse civil rights protestors on the public streets of Birmingham. While working as a staff photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser in September 1958, Moore took a series of photographs of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which focused on his illegitimate arrest for loitering outside the Montgomery court building. These images climaxed in a widely published photograph of King being arrested and booked inside the police station. Moore’s impromptu decision to follow King behind the swinging front door of the police station permitted the photographer to frame a shot that captured King’s facial expression while being physically restrained by the local police officers and sprawled across the booking desk of the Montgomery police station. This photograph of Moore became an iconic and disturbing image of the burgeoning civil rights movement and helped propel the prominence of King as a civil rights leader. In addition, the image which was picked up by publications nationwide, established Moore’s career as a photojournalist. Subsequently, Moore proceeded to photograph some of the most famous images of civil rights demonstrations and protests and coercive, repressive police countermeasures on the streets of Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama for Life magazine in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Moore’s dramatic and horrifying images provoked many African Americans and sympathetic whites to become actively involved in supporting the civil rights movement through protests, boycotts, sit-in, demonstrations, financial assistance, and political and legal advocacy.
Figure 10.14. Charles Moore, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is arrested for loitering outside a courtroom where his friend and associate Ralph Abernathy is appearing for a trial, 1958. Charles Moore / Contributor / Getty Images
Figure 10.15. Charles Moore, Firefighters aiming high-pressure water hoses at civil rights demonstrators, Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963, Charles Moore / Contributor / Getty Images
Figure 10.16. Charles Moore, Police using dogs to attack civil rights demonstrators, Birmingham, Alabama, May 3, 1963. Charles Moore / Contributor / Getty Images
In September and October 1962, Moore, who was then working for Life magazine, covered the violent turmoil and conflict surrounding the court-ordered integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith, the first African-American to attend the all-white state university in Oxford, Miss. During the first week of September, a federal district ordered the University of Mississippi to admit Meredith, a twenty-eight-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, to the school. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, a virulent segregationist, appeared on statewide television to announce that he would defy the federal court order requiring the racial integration of the school, known by its white students and alums as “Ole Miss.” Barnett appealed to white racial pride, white supremacy, and fear of racial integration asserting, “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration . . . We must either submit to the unlawful dictate of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them, ‘Never.’” Barnett’s incendiary televised speech and a subsequent similar unyielding, racist address he personally gave on September 29 at halftime of an Ole Miss-Kentucky college football game in Jackson, Miss. helped ignite raucous protests and demonstrations by white Mississippians on campus and in Oxford against the impending integration of the university by Meredith. Despite his seemingly implacable public opposition to enrolling Meredith at Ole Miss, Barnett was privately negotiating with President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to facilitate a political agreement that would permit Meredith to register and attend the university and uphold a precarious, unstable peace at the university and in the town of Oxford. Negotiations between Governor Barnett and the Kennedys broke down on September 30, and President Kennedy immediately ordered 123 deputy marshals, 316 border patrolmen, and 97 federal prison guards into place at the Lyceum, the campus administration building where Meredith was scheduled to register for classes the next day. In addition, Kennedy authorized the use of federal troops, if necessary, to enroll Meredith at the university and prevent white mob violence from engulfing the college campus and the town of Oxford.
Figure 10.17. Charles Moore, View of a line of US military jeeps carrying soldiers in gas masks arrive on the campus of the University of Mississippi during an ongoing riot, Oxford, Mississippi, September 30 or October 1, 1962. Charles Moore / Contributor / Getty Images
On the evening of September 30, a growing, fearsome, and angry mob of white Mississippians began to pelt the campus administration building with rocks and bottles, fired gunshots at federal law enforcement authorities, as well as overturn cars and smash windows on campus. During that evening, Moore found himself trapped, with his camera and plenty of film, inside the main administration building accompanied by several hundred U.S. Marshals and other federal law enforcement officers defending and securing the building from destruction by the white rioters. Outside the administration building, federal marshals were fighting off the rioters with tear gas and nightsticks to protect their lives and prevent school buildings and other university property from being damaged or destroyed. As the only photographer inside the administration building, Moore emerge