How Civil Rights Photos Have Been Used and Remembered
by Holly Stuart Hughes
Leigh Raiford is a Professor of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where she teaches, researches, writes, and curates about race, gender, justice, and visuality. She is the inaugural director of the Black Studies Collaboratory, a three-year project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Before arriving at UC-Berkeley, she was the Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellow at Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Ford Foundation, Volkswagen Foundation (Germany), the Mellon Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Hellman Family Foundation, and has also been a Fulbright Senior Specialist.
Raiford is the author of Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). She is co-editor with Heike Raphael-Hernandez of Migrating the Black Body: Visual Culture and the African Diaspora (University of Washington Press, 2017) and with Renee Romano of The Civil Rights Movement in American Memory (University of Georgia Press, 2006). Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, as well as popular venues, including Artforum, Aperture, Ms. Magazine, Atlantic.com, and Al- Jazeera.com. In 2019, she co-curated the group shows Plumb Line: Charles White and the Contemporary at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles (with Essence Harden); and About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (with Prof. Lauren Kroiz and the students in the yearlong Mellon Curatorial Seminar).
In your book Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, you note that in the 21st century, we’ve tended to use Civil Rights photographs to illustrate simplistic views, either “then as now,” as if nothing has changed, or “the past is the past.” Can you explain how the movement has been framed, and what these narratives miss?
I was doing this research 25 years ago, when the study of social movement photography wasn’t as common. Academic historians would say that they were moved to study the Civil Rights movement after seeing photos taken in Birmingham in 1963, but their research didn’t look at the photographs themselves. What became clear to me was that our later understanding of the Civil Rights movement was fundamentally shaped by photography and moving images of that movement, but in ways that people weren’t explicitly articulating. It became important to me to understand what role photography played in the movement at the time, how certain actors understood photography as part of their campaign strategies, and to think about how those images travel through time.
The images that flash in our minds are usually images of police violence against protesters, or images of a specific leader like Martin Luther King giving the “I have a dream” speech. You would also see almost faceless masses of marchers. The repetition of those sorts of images—state violence against protesters, a charismatic leader, faceless masses—gives us the pillars of our understanding of the movement. What the narratives miss are the long, unsexy, day-to-day work of social organizing. They miss the names and contributions of many, many, many individuals. I think they also miss how photography itself shapes our understanding of democracy and movement participation.
One of the things I most enjoyed was going to archives and finding not just photos that had been heavily circulated, but also contact sheets, and many rolls of film people shot not only at protests but at meetings, literacy classes, etc. I got to see how the camera became a pedagogical tool. Photography also played a role in how people understood themselves as part of a movement. Some of the photographers—Danny Lyon, Maria Varela, Doug Harris, Julius Lester—came with cameras, trying to figure out what contribution they could make to the movement.
You wrote, “For many viewers, almost the entirety of the civil rights movement is captured in photos of Birmingham in 1963.” But as your book details, the ways that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) used and produced photography changed a lot. Can you summarize the three phases of SNCC’s evolving strategies for using photos?
SNCC forms in 1960, and they bring in the first photographers in 1962. SNCC develops a photo agency, photographers volunteer, they receive different kinds of photographic training from people like Richard Avedon, they have darkrooms set up by independent photojournalist Matt Herron in Atlanta, as well as Mississippi and Alabama. By 1967, SNCC closes the agency, and at the end there was only one person working in the SNCC darkroom, Julius Lester. In those five years, SNCC’s relationship to photography mirrors changes in SNCC, the evolution of the Civil Rights movement and the Black power movement, and its relationship to mass media.
In its early years, SNCC is invested in photography as a truth-telling document that can reveal the challenges that face Black folks in the South. It also documents SNCC’s activity. SNCC wants to “imprison in a luminous glare,” in Dr. King’s words, the anti-Black racism that Black folks in the U.S. are facing, and broadcast that to a watching world. In those first years, the images are appearing in the SNCC newsletter, being made into posters for sale, and they also find their way into mass media outlets.
As SNCC goes through an internal crisis in 1964 to 1965, they’re rethinking the role of an integrated movement, and they concentrate on support of Black communities. There are fewer protests to photograph. Photographers are starting to explore more with their cameras, they’re doing more photo essays and spending more time in communities.
By 1966, 1967, those photographers are trying to think about photography in the service of Black communities. SNCC starts producing photographs as calendars to put in Black people’s homes, they start making books as literacy and informational tools. One of the most beautiful documents I’ve seen is a film strip that Maria Varela and Doug Harris helped create called Something of Our Own, about how to form a Black farmer’s co-op. It’s made up of beautiful images of a Black community farming okra.
SNCC shifts from reaching the broadest possible audience—specifically a white audience outside the South—to making photographs specifically for Black audiences. The arc of SNCC from 1962 to 1967 is reflected in the visual production of the SNCC photo agency.
So the shifts reflect SNCC’s changing goals, and not changes in the national media, or among reporters covering “the race beat”?
That’s true as well. I argue in the book that mass media and the movement are in dialogue with each other. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the urban uprisings in 1965 and 1966, the national mood towards Civil Rights really sours. There’s a sense that: Well, you got these laws enacted, why are you still protesting?
In the 1960s, there’s an emerging disillusionment with the government, and the truthfulness of institutions. What’s interesting to me about SNCC’s shift from the early 1960s to the late 1960s, and about the Black Panther Party’s use of photography in the late 1960s, is that the Panthers already approached photography with a sense that images are manipulated, that there’s always a frame to the storytelling. For SNCC, it had been very much a social-documentary impulse: If we just give people the information, they’ll be guided to do the right thing. By the latter part of the 1960s, the Black Panther Party, SNCC’s Julius Lester, and others are very clear: Images alone aren’t going to move people if they don’t fundamentally believe in Black humanity. That begs the question: What else can photography help us understand? What do Black people want to see and know about themselves that they have not seen before?
Was the Black Panther Party aware of the FBI’s campaign of disinformation, or the media’s role in FBI efforts to discredit the Party?
They were very conscious of FBI infiltration. They were constantly receiving anonymous letters pointing fingers at different members. I don’t know if they had direct evidence of some of the things I found in the COINTELPRO papers, about the destruction of the Black Panther newspaper, or what a local Miami TV show did, for example: They lowered chairs in the studio and misdirected the Panthers about which camera to look at, so they would look shifty.
But what the Black Panthers tapped into is a long history of Black defamation in newspapers and magazines. You only have to look back to reports of lynching in the 19th and early 20th century, with its references to “Black brutes” and “Negro cocaine fiends,” to recognize the kinds of tropes and forms of defamation levied against the Black Panthers. The Panthers are aware of that and, in many ways, tried to capitalize on it. When the Panthers showed up at the California state capitol to protest the Mulford Act, which limited their right to bear arms, they understood they were intervening in a stereotype, a media-circulated trope about dangerous Black men with guns.
In your essay in the book Civil Rights in American Memory,you quote Angela Davis: “Where cultural representations do not reach out beyond themselves, they will constitute both the beginning and end of political practice.” You add that where cultural representations of the past do not reach beyond themselves, or function as surrogates for activism, they don’t guide present action, they’re just nostalgia. Is there something image makers can do to ensure their images “reach beyond themselves”? Or is it on us, the viewers, to reanimate past images and use them in guiding future action?
I think we saw this in the summer of 2020. The idea was that if we just put “Black Lives Matter” signs in our window or put more Black faces in public positions, that somehow constitutes change and activism. I think what we’ve seen in the last few years is what hypocrisy those cultural representations turned out to be, not followed with any meaningful action toward justice. They were representations for representation’s sake, as opposed to representation for the sake of structural change.
I always say that icons are not born, they’re made. In the repeated circulation of an iconic image—or, in this moment, it may be the meme-ification of an image—the question becomes: How are we circulating it? How are we contextualizing it? What uses are we making of it? To go back to 2020, a lot of people would circulate the same sort of images without context. Maybe it was replacing their Instagram profile with a black square, or sharing the photograph of a young Black man hugging a white police man. They circulate without the context to understand them. People sometimes think that activism begins and ends with the circulation of an image.
A photograph is always unfolding, it’s never the same as it is the moment the image is taken. It’s a time- and space-traveling object. It’s always accumulating and shedding meanings, and it has the potential to create new stories. So the work becomes: How do we understand a photograph’s role in building more just futures?
Looking now at the Civil Rights images I saw as a kid in my parents’ copy of Look or LIFE, they seem to have mostly shed meaning or potency. They’re so familiar now, they seem more one-dimensional.
I’ve been really struck by Tennessee state representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. There’s a low-angle photo of them linking raised arms with Gloria Pearson, the white representative who wasn’t voted out of the legislature. The photo reminds me of one of the images of the Freedom Riders: a multiracial group, arms linked, mouths open. These young Tennessee representatives, and the media around them, are picking up on clues and symbols to situate them visually in the long history of the Civil Rights movement.
Can the meanings of images by reanimated? I started my book with lynching photographs, because they were the ultimate test. Can you take these horrible photos, that were made to mean the inevitability of white supremacy, and make them mean something else? Could they be re-used in a way that they testify to the inevitability of white supremacy’s demise? Ida B. Wells, the NAACP, and later Mamie Till-Mobley reinvigorated the meaning of those photos. I have to believe we can change the brutalizing meanings assigned to Black life by photography through photography itself.