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The Struggle in Black and White: Activist Photographers Who Fought for Civil Rights

Text can tell stories, but a picture is worth a thousand words, and will provoke emotions in a way text cannot. You may recall how photographs and video from Vietnam turned the tide of public opinion against the war. Photographs from the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and ‘60s served the same purpose.

Photographs of the civil rights struggle helped galvanize those outside the South against legalized discrimination, exposing them to the indignities African American citizens suffered under a system of state-backed racism. Some have argued that the most enduring photographs of the movement downplayed the autonomy of black people to make change and shape their own future, portraying them as weak victims who needed white people to save them. However, many images also documented the strength and courage of peaceful protests, showing unwavering black communities united towards a common goal.

Many of the most iconic images of the era were taken by photographers working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), though other organizations, like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), also utilized photographers as part of their mission to eradicate racial inequality. As Leslie Kelen points out in the 2011 book This Light of Ours about photographers of the civil-rights era, individuals documenting the movement “did not then and do not now see themselves primarily as photographers but as ‘activists’ or ‘organizers’ with cameras.” Kelen writes that SNCC “was uniquely farsighted in its usage of photographers and photographs. Soon after its 1960 founding in Raleigh, North Carolina, this student-led organization invited photographers to be an integral part of their communications effort.” For most of these photographers, involvement with various social-justice causes has continued throughout their lives.

Collectors Weekly spoke to Civil Rights photographers LeRoy Henderson, Matt Herron, Bob Adelman, and others about their experiences during those turbulent times, and how images are a powerful tool for social change. 

(Image credit: Lilbrary of Congress)

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