Civil Rights Photography

High Museum of Art

from the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Civil Rights Photography
The High Museum of Art holds one of the most significant collections of photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. The works in this exhibition are only a small selection of the collection, which includes more than 300 photographs that document the social protest movement, from Rosa Parks’s arrest to the Freedom Rides to the tumultuous demonstrations of the late 1960s. The city of Atlanta—the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—was a hub of civil rights activism and it figures prominently in the collection. Visionary leaders such as Dr. King, Congressman John Lewis, and former mayor Ambassador Andrew Young are featured alongside countless unsung heroes. The photographs in this collection capture the courage and perseverance of individuals who challenged the status quo, armed only with the philosophy of nonviolence and the strength of their convictions.

This photograph was originally published in a groundbreaking Life Magazine photo essay by Gordon Parks, which exposed Americans to the effects of racial segregation. Parks focused his attention on a multigenerational family from Alabama. His photographs captured the Thornton family’s everyday struggles to overcome discrimination.

Gordon Parks's choice of subject matter sets his series of photographs of a family living under segregation in 1956 Alabama apart from others of the period. Rather than focusing on the demonstrations, boycotts, and brutality that characterized the battle for racial justice, Parks emphasized the prosaic details of one family’s life. His ability to elicit empathy through an emphasis on intimacy and shared human experience made them especially poignant.

This photograph was made at the time of Rosa Parks’s second arrest, and was widely reproduced in newspapers and magazines. Civil rights leaders quickly understood the power of photography to help stimulate awareness of their cause and raise funds for their effort to overthrow segregation laws.

One of the most iconic images of the civil rights era, this photograph shows 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford walking alone in front of Little Rock High School while being taunted by a menacing, hateful mob. Eckford was alone because she failed to receive notification that the date for desegregating the school had been postponed by a day.

Builder Levy frequently focuses on social issues, reflecting his personal commitment to causes he has embraced during his thirty-five year tenure as a teacher of at-risk adolescents in a New York inner-city school. This image documents one of the many historic marches on Washington, D.C., that took place during the civil rights era.

The man seen here pouring cleaning agents into a swimming pool occupied by men and women engaging in a “swim-in”, is James Brock, manager of the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. Like most other white business owners, he banned blacks from his establishment. While the protestors floated in a pool of chemicals, off-duty policemen dove in and arrested them.

Dr. King and his fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leader Ralph Abernathy led a ten-person contingent to the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, in June 1964. King engaged the owner, James Brock, in a discussion that grew long and heated. King explained the kinds of humiliations blacks endured daily, to which Brock replied – smiling into the television cameras – “I would like to invite my many friends throughout the country to come to Monson’s. We expect to remain segregated.” The police arrived to arrest King and his group. They were held without bail in St. John’s County jail for several days.

In October 1964, King learned that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. At thirty-five he was the youngest ever recipient. On his way back from Oslo, Norway, to receive his prize he stopped off in Baltimore, where he was thronged by supporters offering congratulations on this landmark honor.

The Ku Klux Klan was picketing a newly desegregated hotel a few doors down from a segregated restaurant where a group of young civil rights workers were protesting. The lettering on a sign held by one of the young demonstrators, bearing the slogan “Atlanta’s Image is a Fraud”, has been enhanced by newsroom staff, presumably to read more effectively in newspaper print. Reflected in reverse in the storefront window behind the protestors is the signage for a Cary Grant movie being screened in a theater across the street.

Larry Fink, best known for his portraits of high society reproduced in magazines such as Vanity Fair, was also very engaged with the civil rights cause. He was on hand in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968 – a month after Dr. King’s assassination - to photograph Coretta Scott King’s arrival at Resurrection City. Fink skillfully framed Mrs. King’s face in the doorjamb of the car, as she is greeted by Fred Bennette, a member of Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The tenacity and courage of members of the Civil Rights Movement - including those on both sides of the camera - continues to inspire social justice activists today. With protests and cries for equality happening across the United States, images like this one resonate more than ever.

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