New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Marching Together

Road To Freedom Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956 - 1968
R. Wayne Parsons
Dr. King and Coretta Scott King Marching, Montgomery, Alabama, 1965 by Morton Broffman. Source:
Morton Broffman, "Dr. King and Coretta Scott King Marching, Montgomery, Alabama, 1965"

Using visual art to effect social or political change is dicey. Guernica did not stop the Spanish civil war, did not prevent the Fascists from winning, and did not interfere with almost 40 years of repressive rule by General Franco, who died at a ripe old age of 82.

But there are exceptions, one of which is the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans in the mid twentieth century. “Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968” documents this seismic period of American history.

It is a large exhibition, with more than 130 photographs. Most of the milestone civil rights events are documented here: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), the integration of Little Rock High School (1957), the firebombing of a bus of freedom riders near Anniston, Alabama (1961), the March on Washington (1963), the protests and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (1963), the Selma–Montgomery march (1965), the Memphis sanitation workers strike and the assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968), and others. If any of these events are unfamiliar to you, then get yourself to the Bronx as soon as possible!

Many photographers are represented in this show; the most famous are Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon and Gordon Parks, though lesser known photojournalists were equally important –- Charles Moore, Steve Shapiro and Bill Hudson are just a few.

The civil rights movement could not have wished for better opponents –- better in the sense of poor at strategizing, creating the conditions of their own defeat, etc. Without these photos and film footage filling the daily papers, news magazines and TV news hour it is questionable how much, if any, progress would have been made. Movement leaders understood what they were doing and were determined to hold the high moral ground with a policy of non-violent resistance; to this end a 1960 photo by James Karales showing civil rights workers being trained how best to passively protect themselves from physical assault is instructive indeed. One conclusion emerging from this show is how much better those advocating for change were at their mission than those opposing them.

The white antagonists seen in these photographs could not resist playing to perfection the role of dumb redneck, easily swayed by primitive racist prejudices and unwittingly providing photojournalists with a wealth of choice material that left Americans outraged at the official injustices prevalent at the time. One of my favorite examples of unintended buffoonery is a photo by Horace Cort made at a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Atlanta. The center of the image is a young man in unpressed, beltless jeans holding his arms high above his head, the armpits of his shirt stained with perspiration. Each hand holds an aerosol spray can, with visible spray coming from both. The caption informs us that he is “spraying deodorant over the heads of sit-in demonstrators.” Another example of a similarly unsophisticated reaction is a white motel owner in Florida pouring cleaner into the whites-only motel swimming pool occupied by protestors at a “swim-in” (a 1964 James Kerlin photo). After the demonstrators left he drained and refilled the pool, then raised the confederate flag over his motel. Unfortunately, primitive violence was more often the response of choice than sophomoric attempts at social commentary.

Perhaps we should not be surprised at such wholly ineffective reactions by the man-in-the-street racist. But the leadership wasn’t much better at this game. Could anything have been more counterproductive than Birmingham police chief Bull Connor’s tactics in response to 1963 demonstrations? Shots of protesters being attacked by police dogs and sprayed by high-pressure fire hoses are some of the most famous –- and most effectual–- images from the struggle, thanks to photographers Charles Moore and Bill Hudson. Moore’s photo of a woman being forced to crouch on the ground to avoid being knocked over by a torrent of water from a fire hose is one of the most searing images in this show and a good example of photojournalism doubling as fine art.

A majority of the people alive in the US today were not even born when the events depicted here took place. This simple fact underscores the importance of this and similar exhibitions, making them a must-see for school children and adults who were attending to other matters. Simple justice demands that we pay homage to the fearless activists, both demonstrators and photographers, who enabled whatever gains toward racial equality we have achieved in our society. We will also be reminded of the road yet to be traveled.

Road To Freedom Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement 1956 - 1968

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Sunday, March 28 to
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
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