This Light of Ours

This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement

Edited by Leslie G. Kelen
Julian Bond
Clayborne Carson
Matt Herron
Text by Charles E. Cobb
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    This Light of Ours
    Book Description:

    This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movementis a paradigm-shifting publication that presents the Civil Rights Movement through the work of nine activist photographers-men and women who chose to document the national struggle against segregation and other forms of race-based disenfranchisement from within the movement. Unlike images produced by photojournalists, who covered breaking news events, these photographers lived within the movement-primarily within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) framework-and documented its activities by focusing on the student activists and local people who together made it happen.

    The core of the book is a selection of 150 black-and-white photographs, representing the work of photographers Bob Adelman, George Ballis, Bob Fitch, Bob Fletcher, Matt Herron, David Prince, Herbert Randall, Maria Varela, and Tamio Wakayama. Images are grouped around four movement themes and convey SNCC's organizing strategies, resolve in the face of violence, impact on local and national politics, and influence on the nation's consciousness. The photographs and texts ofThis Light of Oursremind us that the movement was a battleground, that the battle was successfully fought by thousands of "ordinary" Americans among whom were the nation's courageous youth, and that the movement's moral vision and impact continue to shape our lives.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-172-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-8)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. 9-12)
    Leslie G. Kelen
  4. Foreword
    (pp. 13-18)
    Julian Bond

    A historian wrote of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): “Central aspects of the social movement embodied by SNCC were its nurture of a media consciousness among its activists and an insistence on the historicity of the struggle itself—a preoccupation of leaving a record as being part of the organization’s collective awareness.¹”

    Fifty years after SNCC’s founding, the publication and photo exhibitThis Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movementconfirms the importance of SNCC’s awareness of image—its own and that of the struggle itself.

    In providing a visual record of the organization and the...

  5. Photographing Civil Rights
    (pp. 19-26)
    Matt Herron

    The mantle of civil rights photography was not a one-size-fits-all garment. There were as many styles to this work as there were civil rights photographers, or at least so it appears looking back over the years and reconstructing the experiences of these activist photographers of the sixties. But if most of us approached our task clad in our own personal outlook and strategies, the opportunities and problems we faced were remarkably similar.

    To begin with, we moved through an extraordinarily rich visual environment. As anyone who has looked at civil rights photography will instantly recognize, the faces, the landscapes, the...

  6. The Photographs

    • Part One: Black Life
      (pp. 28-59)

      Grassroots organizing across the “Black Belt” best describes the 1960s Southern Freedom Movement. It was dangerous work punctuated by murder. The Black Belt curves through hundreds of counties from Maryland to Texas. In many, black people are a majority. It still contains some of America’s poorest counties, like Quitman County in Mississippi where a third of the population lives below the poverty line. In the 1960s the county’s average annual per family income was only one thousand dollars.

      Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s good friend and SCLC associate, tells of a 1966 visit they made to a school...

    • Part Two: Organizing for Freedom
      (pp. 60-126)

      Community leaders, many of whom were World War II veterans and led NAACP branches, encouraged SNCC to make voting rights a priority. White-black population ratios indicated that gaining the right to vote would cause a dramatic and beneficial shift of power relations at state and local levels. Thus, from an organization of sit-in students, SNCC became an organization of organizers with more full-time field secretaries than any of the older civil rights groups. SNCC’s approach was “radical,” but what made it radical was the people SNCC worked with. Most were people whose voices were usually unheard or ignored—like Mrs....

    • Part Three: State and Local Terror
      (pp. 127-161)

      Violence against the freedom movement was systemic. In county after county, so-called forces of law and order turned a blind eye to what can only be called terrorism. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups engaged in relentless warfare against change while police departments, sheriffs’ departments, and state police authorities frequently worked hand-in-hand with the Klan. In Amite County, where the sheriff’s brother headed the Ku Klux Klan, one of SNCC’s earliest Mississippi supporters, NAACP leader Herbert Lee, a fifty-two-year-old father of nine children, was shot and killed in broad daylight by a member of the state legislature...

    • Part Four: Meredith March against Fear and Black Power
      (pp. 162-190)

      On June 5, 1966, James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, set out from Memphis, Tennessee, for Jackson, Mississippi, on a solitary “March against Fear.” Meredith sought to show that in the new era blacks in America could walk, and register to vote, without fear of intimidation and reprisal. He walked twelve miles on his first day and reached the Tennessee-Mississippi border. The following day, sixteen miles inside the state of Mississippi, he was ambushed and wounded with birdshot. Martin Luther King, Floyd McKissick, CORE’s new national director, and Stokely...

    • Reflection: How I First Saw King and Found the Movement
      (pp. 191-204)
      Clayborne Carson

      The photographs inThis Light of Oursevoke memories of a Southern Freedom Movement that enabled ordinary people—some of them landless peasants—to become extraordinary participants in the American democratic experiment. Although the subjects featured in this splendid collection include national leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the images also draw attention to the grassroots leaders, community organizers, white volunteers from northern colleges, and many others of all ages who made crucial contributions to a historic movement. Talented photographers (many of them white), often collaborating with their subjects (mostly black), created images that revealed the movement’s complexities while...

  7. The Photographers:: Interviews and Biographies

    • Tamio Wakayama
      (pp. 206-211)

      Tamio Wakayama was born on April 3, 1941, a few months before the outbreak of the Pacific War. He and his family were part of the community of some twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians (Nikkei) living along the coast of British Columbia who were declared enemy aliens and placed in remote internment camps for the war years. After the war, the internees were faced with the choice of being deported to Japan or else settling east of the Rockies. Wakayama’s family went east and settled in Chatham, a farming town in southern Ontario. Chatham was once the terminus of the Underground...

    • Herbert Randall
      (pp. 212-216)

      Herbert Eugene Randall, Jr., was born on December 16, 1936, in the Bronx and is of Shinnecock Indian, African American, and West Indian ancestry. He studied photography under Harold Feinstein in 1957, and from 1958 to 1966 worked as a freelance photographer, publishing with the Associated Press, United Press International, and Black Star. Randall also was a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a forum formed by African American photographers in New York City in 1963 to address the underrepresentation of black photographers in the art world and to encourage major media outlets to present African American people and culture...

    • Maria Varela
      (pp. 217-222)

      Maria Varela was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in the upper Midwest and the Northeast with a rigorous Catholic education. She attended Saint Louis High School in Chicago and then went to Alverno College in Milwaukee, where she became student body president. Throughout her formal education, Varela was involved with the Young Christian Students (YCS) program, which she described as a vigorous social inquiry method that guided Catholic students to bring the church’s core spiritual values more meaningfully into daily life.

      After graduating from Alverno College in 1961, Valera accepted a two-year position with the national YCS organization and...

    • George “Elfie” Ballis (1925–2010)
      (pp. 223-227)

      George “Elfie” Ballis died on September 24, 2010, in his home in Tollhouse, California, from complications caused by pancreatic cancer.

      The firstborn child of Greek and German immigrants, he was raised in the small town of Faribault, Minnesota. After graduating high school in 1943, he rejected a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota and joined the Marine Corps. In boot camp, he tested high for math and science, was sent to radar school, and then was assigned to repair torpedo bombers in the South Pacific. At the war’s end, he returned to Minnesota, earned a degree in journalism, and...

    • Bob Fitch
      (pp. 228-232)

      Bob Fitch was a student at the Pacific School of Religion in the mid-1960s when he began his career as an activist photographer. Trained to be a Protestant minister and expected to take a pulpit, he says, “Photojournalism seduced me. It is a compelling combination of visual aesthetics, potent communication, and storytelling. It is a way to support the organizing for social justice that is transforming our lives and future.”

      Shortly after working for the Glide Foundation in San Francisco, Fitch became a staff photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Rev. Martin Luther King. Traveling throughout...

    • Matt Herron
      (pp. 233-238)

      Matt Herron has been a photojournalist since 1962, and his pictures have appeared in virtually every major picture magazine in the world. Based in Mississippi in the early 1960s, he covered the civil rights struggle forLife, Look, Time, Newsweek,and theSaturday Evening Post,as well as providing pictures for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1964 he founded and directed the Southern Documentary Project, a team of six photographers that attempted to document the process of social change in the South. The project worked closely with SNCC’s photographic team and shared their Atlanta darkroom. During that period,...

    • Bob Fletcher
      (pp. 239-240)

      Bob Fletcher became interested in photography while an undergraduate at Fisk University. He had always been drawn to the arts, but when his parents gave him a subscription to Norman Cousins’sSaturday Review of Literature,which featured the work of contemporary photographers like Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith and the images of the Farm Security Administration, he decided to try it himself.

      In 1963, while in graduate school, Fletcher spent the summer in Harlem as an organizer for the Harlem Education Project (HEP), an affiliate of the Northern Student Movement, and began photographing HEP activities and Harlem life. At...

    • David Prince
      (pp. 241-242)

      David Prince was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1942 and grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where his father worked as a microbotanist for the developing national space program. Prince “turned to photography” in high school as a way to communicate and stay engaged in his classes. Upon graduating in 1960, he enrolled in Ohio University, the only four-year program in the U.S. granting degrees in photojournalism. He studied with the same teachers who taught documentary photographers Paul Fusco and James Karales and “aspired to become a Look or Life photographer.”

      As a university senior, Prince began traveling into...

    • Bob Adelman
      (pp. 243-244)

      A child of Jewish immigrants, Bob Adelman was born on October 30, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in nearby Rockaway. His father, an amateur photographer, taught him how to use a darkroom and first piqued his interest in photography. “My father was a disciplined craftsman,” Adelman said. “I learned precision from him. But all photographers originally get hooked on the magic—the shazam—of the way a blank piece of paper all of a sudden takes on an image.

      Adelman earned an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University, where he majored in philosophy with a focus on aesthetics. For...

  8. Recommended Reading
    (pp. 245-246)
  9. Index
    (pp. 247-251)