Culture and Resistance: Civil Rights Photography Memphis, 1968
The modern Civil Rights Movement generated an abundance of photographs documenting the African American fight for economic, political, and social justice and equality. It was a persistent battle against oppressive forces that operated in powerful positions of legal, social, and economic authority. Local and national news outlets employed photography as a tool to record events surrounding the African American civil rights struggle. Many photographs have transcended the historic archive to become iconic images that represent a collective memory of the era. The archive, however, extends far beyond the published images well known today.
The struggle in Memphis is most often portrayed through images of the 1968sanitation strike and the subsequent assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Local newspapers, primarily the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar, covered the sanitation strike throughout the duration, but ran stories in support of Mayor Henry Loeb’s obstructionist stance against the formation of a union. During the strike, many members of the black community boycotted the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar because of the bias and dishonest reporting.
The visual archive of photographs offers an important counterpart to the written historical record of the sanitation strike. It calls for re-examination and interpretation by a diversity of scholars including historians, artists, and cultural specialists in order to document the history of a marginalized community, whose experience has been substantially misrepresented or left out of dominant historical narratives.
Alternative ways of interpreting these images can be realized by examining them for unexplored issues of race, gender, labor, and class, and how they intersect with aspects of activism, agency, and ideology. The photographs expose a variety of African American responses to oppressive forces, including some aspects of cultural expression that emerged in response to changing social, political and economic circumstances.
Some of the most iconic images of the Civil Rights Movement come from the Birmingham campaign organized to raise awareness of Birmingham’s discrimination laws and the Children’s Crusade organized by Reverend James Bevel. Images of demonstrators attacked by police dogs, bracing against and falling from blasts from fire hoses and suffering heavy blows from policemen wielding nightsticks, and mass arrests of children were televised and published by news outlets around the world. The images exposed the abject violence and brutality used with almost total impunity by dominant forces to resist civil rights. The horrifying images that streamed out of Birmingham were instrumental in creating sympathy for African Americans and mobilizing support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In his 1964 book on the Birmingham struggle, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King declared, “The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught – as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught – in gigantic circling spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.”
Dr. King’s testament to the importance of photography as a truth-revealing medium, places him within a pantheon of black freedom fighters who encouraged the use of photography in the struggle. Since the nineteenth century, African American leaders understood the power of representation to counter negative stereotypes, to advocate for legislative changes. They also understood the utility of documenting racial violence in the struggle for social, political, and economic advancement. Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman all implemented photography in their struggles. They are some of history’s earliest visual theorists and practitioners of photographic politics, and they were instrumental in creating a genre of visual culture stored in news media archives.
The Memphis Press-Scimitar archive holds pieces to the puzzle of an underwritten and often skewed account of the black civil rights history in Memphis. By investigating and interpreting these photographs we can gain greater insight into the past as well as the ability to counter the sanctioned historical narratives through visual documentation of the community’s experience.