Birmingham News Publishes Unseen Civil Rights Photos

The Birmingham News has published some historic pictures from the civil rights era that had been hidden in the vaults by an editor who wanted to avoid adding to the racial turmoil.

Dozens of never before released photos from the civil rights era came to light this weekend after an intern discovered them buried in an equipment closet at the Birmingham News. The photos had been in a box marked: “Keep. Do Not Sell.” But at the time they were taken, the newspaper didn’t want to draw attention to the racial discord of the 1950s and 1960s, news photographers from the period said. “The editors thought if you didn’t publish it, much of this would go away,” said Ed Jones, 81, a photographer at The News from 1942 to 1987. “Associated Press kept on wanting pictures, and The News would be slow on letting them have them, so they flooded the town with photographers.”

On Sunday, the photos finally went to print in a special eight-page section called “Unseen. Unforgotten.” Others are on the newspaper’s Web site at http://www.al.com/unseen .

Several photos vividly show the segregation in the South at the time, including the disparity among school buildings and the different lines for blacks and whites, even at the jail as the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth posts bail after an arrest.

Others show confrontations: a police officer shoving a demonstrator, black children hit with the spray of a firehose, crowds heckling demonstrators on their knees, Freedom Riders being arrested, and whites throwing bricks at cars and blocking blacks from entering “whites-only” areas.

One photo shows a Ku Klux Klan rally with men wearing hoods but their faces uncovered. Others show National Guardsmen with their guns drawn, protecting a bus in one and rounding up rioters protesting a black student’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi.

The story and accompanying photos are available at a special section on the News‘ site, “Unforseen. Unforgotten.”

The lead story is entitled, “From negatives to positives.”

Minutes after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963, Tom Self was on the scene taking pictures. The photographs, published in The Birmingham News, were among hundreds that appeared in print during the civil rights struggle in Alabama. Self, who retired as chief photographer in 1998, remembers many of those images.

He also recalls many not published. One is a picture from inside the Sixteenth Street church moments after explosives blew the face of Jesus Christ from a stained-glass window and killed four little girls. “I shot a picture of Jesus, and everything was intact except his face; his face was blown out,” Self remembered. “It was an eerie feeling to look up there and see the whole frame of the window and just the face was gone.”

Hundreds of photos from that era were lost, sold, stolen or stored in archives. Some of those pictures appear today for the first time in the newspaper, in an eight-page special section titled “Unseen. Unforgotten.

Some sample photos below:

Photo: May 3-9, 1963: Youths are pummeled by water from a fire hose during a Children's Crusade demonstration in downtown Birmingham. Photo: April 6, 1963: Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene 'Bull' Connor points as marchers are arrested outside the federal courthouse on Fifth Avenue North. A series of marches and mass demonstrations over the next five weeks led to hundreds of arrests.

Photo: May 3-9, 1963 Civil rights leaders disagreed on whether to use students as part of the movement, but public perception changed after photographs showed the children being arrested, sprayed by fire hoses and dodging police dogs.

Photo: Feb. 5-7, 1956, Demonstrators march through Tuscaloosa protesting the enrollment of Autherine Lucy at Alabama. Days later Lucy was suspended, and by the end of the month University officials had expelled her despite a federal court order.

Photo: Sept. 17, 1963: Alvin and Alpha Robertson, seated at graveside, mourn their daughter Carole, a victim of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Robertson died in the bombings days after black students began attending Birmingham schools.

Photo: March 7, 1965: John Lewis, center, leads marchers with fellow activist Hosea Williams across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge hoping to march to the capitol in Montgomery. Troopers and deputies used tear gas and clubs to stop the march moments later.

Photo: Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1962: Mississippi National Guardsmen detain a student protester on the University of Mississippi campus after James Meredith tried to enroll.

Photo: March 25, 1965: Mississippi Highway Patrolmen watch marchers arrive in Montgomery from Selma.

The whole thing, as it appeared in the print edition, is available in PDF format:

All of those photos are from before I was born, although some of them just barely. By the time I was in elementary school in Houston in 1972–let alone in high school in Alabama in 1980–the world depicted in those pictures seemed centuries past.

FILED UNDER: Media, Race and Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Anderson says:

    That last photo looks like the freakin’ S.A., but with Confederate flags instead of swastikas.

  2. McGehee says:

    By the time I was in elementary school in Houston in 1972–let alone in high school in Alabam in 1980–the world depicted in those pictures seemed centuries past.

    This would seem to imply that the “relative handful of … agitators” was against the civil rights movement…

  3. James Joyner says:

    McGehee: Not sure I follow.

  4. anjin-san says:

    Yep the good ol’ days, before activist judges & courts ruined everything…

  5. McGehee says:

    James, it just seems to me if the bigotry ere as widespread and deeply held as the conventional view of that era suggests, that the change you observed wouldn’t have been possible in so few years. After all, we’re talking about something that seemed not to have changed all that much in all the preceding 100 years.

    Why so different in only 25 or 30 years? Or could it be that the changes that mattered had been taking place all along?

    Just thinking out loud.

  6. James Joyner says:

    McG: Gotcha. I think that’s certainly the case. Indeed, the reason the civil rights bills passed congress was because of widespread sentiment, even in the South. Much of the counter-reaction was to Court decisions and the general sense that control over their culture was being taken away from them rather than hatred of blacks.

  7. Anderson says:

    Indeed, the reason the civil rights bills passed congress was because of widespread sentiment, even in the South.

    I would really want to see some evidence for that. There was undoubtedly some sentiment, but how many votes in Congress did that translate into?

    It’s true that the rabid racists were always a minority, but a large, loud, scary minority that the gov’t felt it had to kowtow to. The majority felt that blacks were okay “in their place,” vaguely recognized that said place left something to be desired, and vaguely wished for a future of racial harmony … like Thomas Jefferson had, almost 200 years before.

    The comparison to Nazi Germany is, for once, relevant. Most Germans didn’t hate the Jews or want them exterminated, but they weren’t going to buck the system or stick their own necks out for them.

    McGehee, as to why so much improvement has been possible, I have 3 off the cuff explanations:

    (1) The older generation dying off, & being replaced by people like me & JJ to whom segregation sounds like science fiction.

    (2) Massive federal pressure, combined with the national media, driving racism underground.

    (3) Actual encounters with black professionals, etc., gradually dispelling myth that blacks were incapable of being fully human.

    And believe me, while it’s a lot better, there is a lot of racism and prejudice left, though mostly defanged.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Lets not forget the role of the emerging medium of television in bringing the ugly reality of racism in the South into every living room in America.

    Having actually lived thru that era, I think I can safely say that it is nonsense that racists in the south accepted congressional legislation on the race issue but rejected court actions. They rejected both.

  9. Anderson says:

    I think I can safely say that it is nonsense that racists in the south accepted congressional legislation on the race issue but rejected court actions. They rejected both.

    The difference is academic, as they say: “we accept your laws but reject your enforcing them” is not much of a compromise.

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