Photos From Civil Rights Era Published for First Time
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JEFFREY BROWN: Images played a powerful role during the civil rights era, often presenting the nation and the world with a graphic portrait of hatred and struggle. But at the time, we now know many images were not seen, at least in part because some newspapers chose not to show photos that would enflame or draw negative attention to their communities.
This week, in a special eight-page section called “Unseen, Unforgotten,” the Birmingham News in Alabama published photos taken during the 1950s and ’60s, including protests, and demonstrations, police crackdowns, and slices of daily life.
The photos had never appeared in the paper or been distributed to other news outlets and were only discovered in 2004 by Alexander Cohn, a former intern at the paper who then went on to research their origins and history. Barnett Wright, a reporter for the news, worked with Cohn and wrote an article that accompanied the photos.
Alexander Cohn, starting with you, I understand you found these photos, some 5,000 of them, in a closet. So tell us about the discovery. And I wonder, did you know what you’d come across?
ALEXANDER COHN: I really did not know what I’d come across. I was looking for a lens and nosing around to see what else was in there, some equipment that I could use. I was there working as a photo intern.
And I came across a box. It was an old Kodak paper box, and I found a bunch of negatives, sleeved and loosely marked. And when I’d put them on the light table, I was amazed to see some of the images — some of them I had seen before, and some of them I’d never seen before.
And so that launched — I had no idea what was published and what was not published. And that took, really, months of getting into it before I realized how much of that was, indeed, not seen before.
JEFFREY BROWN: And Barnett Wright, many people remember some of that history, but tell us some of the events that are covered in these photos. Remind us.
BARNETT WRIGHT: Well, some of them include confrontations with the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, with members of a white mob. Some of them show arrests of young black children on the streets of Birmingham. Some of them show the classrooms, the conditions that were evident, the difference between the black and white schools at that particular time in Birmingham.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, Alex, tell us what you learned about editorial policy or the newsroom culture that kept these photos from being published?
ALEXANDER COHN: What it looks like is that some of these that had mob violence — at times, like when Autherine Lucy enrolled at the University of Alabama, when the freedom riders came through Birmingham, there were instances of mob violence.
And the editors, while they put a few pictures in the paper, they were slow to move them outside the city. They marked these envelopes that said, “Keep; do not sell.” They didn’t want something that showed Birmingham in a negative light to be seen by the outside world.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what can you add to that, Mr. Wright? I know that, for your story, you talked to some of the photographers and journalists from the time?
BARNETT WRIGHT: I did. Historians felt that the newspaper withheld some of the photographs because they were embarrassing to the paper. Some of the photographers felt, also, that the newspaper wanted to present the Birmingham News in the best light. So, by putting out these photographs, it could have caused some degree of embarrassment; so the belief is that some of them were withheld.
JEFFREY BROWN: I want to give you both a chance to pick one and talk about it, one that’s particularly meaningful to you, starting with you, Mr. Wright.
BARNETT WRIGHT: I think the photograph of Denise McNair’s family, after she was killed in the bomb on 16th Street, the 16th Street Baptist Church. The grief that you see among the family members, her mother, her aunt, her grandmother, is just full of anguish, full of pain.
And I think that one photograph tells the climate at that particular time. And I think it spoke volumes about what was going on at the particular time.
That really touched me. When I first saw the photographs, we had dozens of them spread out across the table, but I was immediately attracted to that one. And I felt some of that pain.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Alex Cohn, which one stands out for you?
ALEXANDER COHN: If I could add just a little bit about that picture. All of the parents, except for the McNairs, have passed away, the parents of the four girls killed in the church, in 16th Street Baptist Church. And showing that picture to Chris McNair and him saying, “That’s my wife, and that’s her sister and mother,” and then Juanita Jones, his sister-in-law, pulled up about the same time I was showing him this, and said, “Yes, that’s me. I had no idea this was out there.” And that was really thrilling.
But one of the pictures that has intrigued me is — it’s a picture of schoolchildren outside West End High School, and they’re boycotting classes. There is two students, two girls that have — two black girls who went to school and are just taking their first classes at school, and most of the school is outside boycotting.
And I’m really curious what these kids were thinking at the time and what they’re thinking now. So much of the civil rights history has been told by the people who were very proud of their role in it. And the thing that’s not told is those folks who are not as proud. And I want to know what’s changed for them.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Alex Cohn, I know this became a project for you, but what has the paper said about why it decided now to put in what I gather was a very large effort to publish these photos?
ALEXANDER COHN: You know, I think they saw these, and it’s a different group of people who are at the newspaper now. And I don’t think they really realized everything that was up there. There was much more than they knew was in there, in all of the files. And we were excited to see it, and I think wanted to show the world that they were not afraid of the past.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Barnett Wright, finally, what has been the response in the community since they were published?
BARNETT WRIGHT: It has been overwhelming. We’ve had dozens of letters, e-mails about the project. The Library of Congress has asked for copies of the negatives. We have heard from schools. We have heard from past residents of the city. We have had 3.5 million hits on our Web site, so this has been overwhelming. I think it also shows that Birmingham is a different city and the Birmingham News is a different newspaper.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well, I want to thank you both for sharing it with us, Barnett Wright and Alexander Cohn. Thanks a lot.
BARNETT WRIGHT: Thank you.
ALEXANDER COHN: Thank you.