The Civil Rights Movement – A Photographic History, 1954-68, by Steven Kasher

As part of Black History Month, this week’s Random Book of the Week is a photographic history of the Civil Rights Movement in America, a period of history that held such fascination for me as a student that I wrote an impossibly-pretentiously-titled university dissertation on it (‘The Civil Rights Movement and The Cult of the Celebrity, 1955-68’ – now please, don’t judge, we were all young and earnest once…).

This period fascinated me because, as a student fretting about making essay deadlines and 9am lectures after too many 90p-glasses of wine in the college bar, I couldn’t help but compare myself to the young people I was reading about as part of my studies, who had things such as ‘is one of Bull O’Connor’s police dogs gonna chew my face off at the march tomorrow, or will it be the water cannon this time?’ on their worry list. As these photographs show, the movement was not just about the well-known faces of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, et al – it was these foot soldiers of the movement, often not much older than teenagers, who sustained the battle ‘in the field’ as King and co fought the parallel battle in the corridors of political power. I was honoured to interview some of these ‘Movement veterans’ as part of my dissertation,  and thinking of those conversations brings tears to my eyes even now. As one told me, the reason many welcomed celebrity involvement in the cause was because it offered a level of protection against police brutality: ‘we felt vulnerable all the time.’ I wondered then, and I still wonder now, if I too could have been as brave.

This book is full of brilliant, emotionally-charged pictures of those foot-soldiers at work, alongside a comprehensive history of the Movement. In these pictures we see the entire spectrum of human interaction – from joy to sorrow, from solidarity to brutality. They serve as a timely reminder of the horror of race relations in America then, when daily news from ‘over the pond’ suggests that there is still much to be done now. Respect to you, Movement veterans, and all of you still fighting that fight.

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William Gadsden attacked by K-9 Units outside Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, May 3, 1963
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Sit-in At Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, Jackson, Mississippi, May 28, 1963
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Youth responding to news of King’s murder, Harlem, April 4, 1968
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Julian Bond and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, Georgia, March 23, 1963.  I interviewed the phenomenal Dorothy Miller Zellner, on Julian Bond’s right, as part of my dissertation, and she told me an excellent story about how Harry Belafonte ‘had wall-to-wall cream carpet…so we knew he had really made it!’ I have aspired to wall-to-wall cream carpeting ever since, but sadly it is incompatible with my red wine lifestyle.
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12 Comments Add yours

  1. Those pictures are incredible – really powerful, the stories leap out at you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know. I love looking at the faces and imagining their stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gwen says:

    Reading about this period as an adult made me incredibly disappointed in the way I was taught about it in school. It’s still a highly politicized issue in the U.S., and there’s very little depth to the way we talk about it. February is our Black History Month, and every year people talk about the “I Have a Dream Speech,” Rosa Parks, occasionally the sit-ins and desegregation—but it’s all kind of sanitized, just brushing the surface, with the same famous photos we’ve all seen over and over. Growing up, I certainly never got a real sense of the absolute horror and brutality, the way you can see it in these photos. They really are powerful.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Gwen for taking the time to provide such an interesting perspective. My only thought is that it is perhaps a painful part of US history and the sanitized version is almost a comfort blanket. Maybe in time it will be easier to talk frankly about such troubled times.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the way you revise your own history here.
    I remember the years of downplaying this movement (which actually opened the way for so many to follow – women’s rights, gay rights, native rights . . .) “after-the-fact”, of chipping away at its depth and significance, trying to make it seem like a fashion rather than a revolution. I personally consider myself a part of “Generation Pathetic” – the one to whom the torch was passed.And what did we do? We put it down and went shopping. Fast-forward a few decades and what happens? Obama is elected and people declare Post-Racial America while black boys and men get shot in parks and stores and cars and . . . The civil rights movement was not a part of the 60s. It is ongoing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points well made. I certainly felt part of Generation Pathetic when reading these stories.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Jan Hicks says:

      Oh, love. And today a President surely in reaction to Obama is elected, making the fight ever more crucial. Reading this review and looking at those images has been hard. I’m not American, but I feel the shock my American friends are feeling today, and then I think ‘This is what it’s like for people of colour in America every day. This incomprehension about how people can have voted this way.’ The civil rights fight is ongoing.

      And Brontë, what a privilege indeed to interview someone who lived it. I love the caption on the last image!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It was truly a privilege Jan. And you are completely right, today’s result really does show how far we need to go. I do think both Brexit and the Trump vote are in part reactions to huge political disengagement and we do need to take a long hard look at things to work out how we got to this place. But there is some undeniable ugliness under those votes too and we need to think about that too. Phenomenal and scary times.

        Like

      2. Jan Hicks says:

        The political system in both countries is broken. Massive distrust in the political elite who don’t pay attention when they’re told they’re out of touch with the reality of life for most people. PR is one possible solution. I honestly don’t know how political parties can win back the trust of the people who either don’t vote at all or vote to ‘send a message’ without thinking through the consequences. Brexit made me think there’s such a dark undercurrent in the UK that’s racist, homophobic, hateful, and the Leave campaign gave those people what they wanted to hear. Trump did the same. I’m in a socialist/liberal bubble among my friends and colleagues, but I have extended family on the other side of the political spectrum. It’s impossible to reason with them, they’re so disillusioned.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Nail on head Jan. Interesting times. For me, one of the most important things is to ask why people are voting in this way. We have to face up to the disillusion and the anger and the nastier undercurrents that are more difficult to justify. We can’t just say ‘those people are stupid’ as that is what got us in this mess in the first place. Trying times…

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Jan Hicks says:

        Yes. There needs to be conversation, understanding, and a willingness to learn on both sides of the divide.

        I was ever an idealist.

        Liked by 1 person

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