These three men were among those who died trying to make today possible.
On June 21, 1964, Neshoba County, Mississippi law enforcement officials and Ku Klux Klansmen killed Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman because they were going to help black men and women register to vote. Today, 44 years after they were murdered, a black man is on the verge of being elected president.
Voting is something that most of us take for granted. I know I did. As a child I remember going with my parents to vote: We walked a block up Montero Ave., across Hillside Drive and into someone’s garage. My parents stepped into gray metal booths, pulled shut some cheap black curtains and cast their ballots while I waited outside. Back then I assumed that voting was something that everyone did and that everyone always had done.
I grew up in Bill Owens‘ America. That’s a long way from central Mississippi. It takes an enormous amount of imagination for me to understand what it must have been like for millions of Americans to be denied the most fundamental tenet of participatory citizenship and to fight back. I wouldn’t have any understanding whatsoever if it had not been for the brave photographers who chronicled the civil rights movement and the images they left behind. These pictures are arguably the most important pictures ever taken in America. Along with the video shot by television news reporters in the South in the mid-’60s, they forced our nation to confront the racism and the violence it tolerated. They helped make today possible. This seems like a good time to remember them and to remember how those photographs made us pay attention.
When I paid attention
Thirty years after Freedom Summer I was in college. I started learning about the civil rights movement in class. It was fine and interesting, but little of it stuck.
Shortly thereafter I moved to Washington, where as a young sportswriter I wrote a story on a Baltimore Ravens football player who, as a child, had been the plaintiff in a major civil rights lawsuit. The story fascinated me — how did I not know about all that stuff? — so I decided to find out more. At the time I didn’t think I knew any civil rights-era heroes, so I thought I should find a book to read. (As it turned out I was wrong, I knew several civil rights-era heroes, but they just never talked about it.)
I walked across the street from my apartment and bought Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters, the first of Branch’s trilogy of books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. At the time — and this is embarrassing — I had little idea who Branch was or that the book was particularly good. My first response to the book was to this picture on the cover. It was taken by James Karales in 1965, on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march. I bought the book.
(Karales was a 35-year-old photojournalist who had been making photographs about race in America since the late 1950s. Edward Steichen bought several of Karales’ photographs of an integrated Ohio mining town for MoMA’s collection in the 1950s, helping to encourage Karales to continue his focus on race issues. In 2005 Duke launched a posthumous show of Karales’ work.)
Vince Aletti wrote that Karales’ photographs have “the weight of history and the grace of art.” It’s a smart way of saying that the great photojournalism of the civil rights era isn’t exactly art, but because the best of it is so imbued with the right stuff, who cares?
Aletti is right. Great art allows us to feel and compels us to receive. The best photojournalism of the civil rights era does that too. It laid bare a fundamental truth about an American lie and the heroism that responded to it that nothing else could. For those of us who are too young to have lived through those years, or who lived too far away to grow up with the heroes of the era, photographs are the best way — often the only way — for us to try to understand how they overcame.
Each hour today I’m going to post an image from the civil rights movement, an image about voting. Maybe without these pictures equality would have come to America. Maybe Barack Obama would have run for president anyway and maybe he’d win. But maybe not.