A Discussion about the Role of Photography in the African American Post-War Civil Rights Movement

Essay, 2010

13 Pages


A Discussion about the Role of Photography in the African American Post-War Civil Rights Movement

Photography has played various roles in the African American Post-War Civil Rights Movement. Besides its extraordinary coverage of the contemporary Jazz scene and the historical documentation of the segregated South (Kasher, 1996), it had in particular a remarkable political function.

Photography and television have given the Civil Rights fighters a voice which could not be ignored in Post-War America; by showing the struggle in all its unjust cruelty they confronted the national and international community with the shocking reality. People got motivated to express their sympathy for the demonstrators and the number of Movement supporters grew rapidly. Thereby, the most significant stream of followers arose only after the news media had shown images of unexpected outrage, making the relationship obvious (Streitmatter, 2008).

In general, media do not only have a significant impact on public opinion but also contribute greatly to the success of humanitarian organisations. Often their influence even exceeds the possibilities available to politicians. This arises from the news media being the only source of information consumers get about developments further afield, making the success of civil rights movements highly dependent on their image given by press and television (International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2002).

As one of these movements, the struggle for desegregation in America is the most thoroughly documented social conflict to date (Kasher, 1996). The tabloid Life, which can be seen as the national newspaper at the time (Shepherd, 1997), was reaching even more people than the new medium of television. For this reason, the magazine’s understanding of the events, which was expressed by its presentation of images of the iconography of war – uniformed troopers, weaponed assaults, the wounded, state funerals – was spread widely and contributed to the change in public opinion (Kasher, 1996).

Whereas the claim for the media being the cause of a basic change in politics and society often suffers from oversimplification (International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2002), there are many facts indicating it in the case of America’s Post-War desegregation.

This can be explained by three major events, the subsequent news coverage of each, and political shifts in the course of the Civil Rights Movement: the Birmingham campaign in May 1963; the March on Washington in August 1963; and “Bloody Sunday”, the first Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965.

The clashes at the mass demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 brought about international indignation over police brutality for the first time since the Civil Rights Movement was formed in the wake of the Freedom Rides 1961. Americans were shocked by the willing use of truncheons, high pressure water cannons and police dogs by their own state’s troopers. Newspapers depicted these scenes of ruthless repression in exceptionally striking pictures (Figs.1+2), whilst television broadcast specials and news reports about the clashes (Kasher, 1996).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


Charles Moore, Life magazine (1963

Charles Moore, Life magazine (1963)

This had an immediate impact: “Kansas farmers, New Jersey housewives, Minnesota school teachers; they spoke in a very strong way after being influenced by those images” (Shepherd, 1997, 27’).

There was one photograph in particular representing the dimensions of brutality towards demonstrators. It shows the protester Walter Gadsden being seized by a policeman and savaged by a German Shepherd Dog (Fig.3).

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Bill Hudson, Associated Press, (1963)

Fig. 3

The picture was published worldwide and evoked strong reactions. It became the symbol for segregationist injustice and cruelty and is three dimensionally reproduced as a statue in Birmingham (Streitmatter, 2008).

As the most popular leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was well aware of the potency of this picture. He was clearly familiar with the function of photography to manipulate public opinion and to motivate support for the Movement, as he explains:

“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 imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world” (Kasher, 1996, p.8).

And he went even further with the statement, “I don’t mind being bitten by a dog – but only in the light of the day” (Shepherd, 1997, 20’).

Therefore the young Walter Gadsden helped the Movement a great deal when he was attacked by the dog, since the event was shown around the world. “They couldn’t have planned it better” (Shepherd, 1997, 31’), as one reporter put it.

One analyst even claims that,

“if there was any single point at which the 1960s generation of ‘new negroes’ turned into a major social force, the appearance of that photograph was it. Intense pressure on President Kennedy to initiate federal action began to be applied the moment that image appeared” (Streitmatter, 2008, p.182).


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A Discussion about the Role of Photography in the African American Post-War Civil Rights Movement
University of Westminster
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Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, African American, Photography, Demonstration, segregation, Birmingham Campaign, March on Washington, Bloody Sunday, Selma to Montgomery March, Emerett Till, Life Magazine, John F. Kennedy, I Have A Dream, first television
Quote paper
Sarah Doerfel (Author), 2010, A Discussion about the Role of Photography in the African American Post-War Civil Rights Movement, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/210162


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