Exhibitions“A Fire That No Water Could Put Out”: Civil Rights Photography
Past Exhibition

“A Fire That No Water Could Put Out”: Civil Rights Photography

November 4, 2017 – April 29, 2018

This installation of over forty photographs examines the history and legacy of the civil rights movement. Iconic prints drawn from the High Museum’s celebrated collection demonstrate the power and potency of photography during that significant era, while contemporary works point to the ongoing struggle for equal rights.

Banner Image Above:
Ernest Withers (American 1922-2007)
Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, March 28, 1968, 1968
Gelatin silver print
Purchase with funds from the Director’s Circle, 2002.24.1


Explore our interactive timeline featuring civil rights photographs from 1956–1967.

Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, printed 2012

Gordon Parks
American, 1912–2006
Pigmented inkjet printGift of the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2014.386In 1956, Life magazine published a photo essay titled “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” by Gordon Parks, the magazine’s first African American staff photographer. The disturbing and poignant color photographs documented the reality of life under segregation in the Jim Crow South.The chain-link fence in this image acts as a physical barrier, preventing the young girls from entering the manicured playground on the opposite side, but also as a metaphorical one. As Parks’s title indicates, the children stand on the “outside looking in” at the kind of life that institutionalized discrimination prevents them from having.

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Freedom Singing, Selma, Alabama, 1965

Charles Moore
American, 1931–2010
Gelatin silver printPurchase with funds from Sherri and Jess Crawford in honor of John Lewis, 2007.252Freedom songs were fundamentally important to the civil rights movement, especially during marches and public demonstrations. These hopeful pieces of music expressed the difficulty of the struggle and the collective yearning for freedom and equality. Charles Moore’s photograph shows a group of civil rights marchers—among them (left to right) James Orange, Bob Mants, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, and Amelia Boynton—singing before beginning their walk to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

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James Baldwin and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the W. E. B. DuBois Centennial Celebration, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1968

James E. Hinton
American, 1936–2006
Gelatin silver printPurchase with funds from Jan P. and Warren J. Adelson, 2001.114

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Grass Roots Organizer, Mississippi, 1968

Doris Derby
American, born 1939
Gelatin silver printPurchase with funds from Jeff and Valerie Levy, 2007.188Dr. Doris Derby is an educator, anthropologist, and photojournalist based in Atlanta. She played a pivotal role in community organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the Adult Literacy Project. It was as a participant in the workshops of Southern Media (a documentary photography and filmmaking group based in Jackson, MS) that Derby learned about photography and cinematography.She used both media to document the lifestyles and social and political concerns of the African American community, especially in Mississippi. Derby’s photographs reflect her interest in the role of women in the civil rights movement. The often unsung and overlooked women in these photographs put their safety and comfort on the line to fight for their families and communities.

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Dr. Martin Luther King’s Motel Room after He Was Shot, Memphis, Tennessee, 1968

Steve Schapiro
American, born 1936
Gelatin silver printPurchase with funds from the H. B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust, 2007.186Steve Schapiro, a staff photographer for Life magazine, was sent to Memphis immediately following the assassination of Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968. Upon arrival, Schapiro was granted access to King’s motel room by one of his aides.Schapiro captured this photograph of some of the last things that Dr. King touched, including a copy of Soul Force magazine and a Styrofoam coffee cup. Schapiro has said of the photograph that “It became symbolic to me in the sense that the physical man was gone; his material things remained, but he still hovered above us in spirit.”

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March in Memphis, Belafonte, Abernathy, Dexter King, Martin Luther King III, Mrs. King, 1968

Burk Uzzle
American, born 1938
Gelatin silver printPurchase, 2016.112On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His assassination sent electric shocks through the United States, as protests in cities across the country broke out in response.The memorial celebrating his life began the following day in Memphis and continued later that week in Atlanta with a private funeral service for over a thousand friends, family, and dignitaries at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King had been a pastor. His funeral then continued with a mass procession through the streets of Atlanta and ended at Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater.The enormous crowds at the events and the range of photographers who documented that day testify to the love and heartbreak many people felt with the loss of this American hero, clergyman, civil rights leader, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

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Memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Central Park, New York City, 1968

Benedict J. Fernandez
American, born 1936
Gelatin silver printGift of Gloria and Paul Sternberg, 1999.154.7

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#1960Now_Atlanta_protest in Buckhead: “Atlanta is Ready,” Philando Castile and Alton Sterling Atlanta, GA July 2016, 2016

Sheila Pree Bright
American, born 1967
Digital gelatin silver printCourtesy of the artistSince 2014, Sheila Pree Bright has been photographing the Black Lives Matter movement, a chapter-based activist group concerned with the unfair and violent treatment of black Americans, particularly in the criminal justice system. Bright has documented the group’s internationally reported protests in her hometown of Atlanta as well as in Selma, AL; Baltimore, MD; and Ferguson, MO.The titles and square format of Bright’s photographs nod to the importance of Instagram and other social media in the contemporary movement for racial justice. Conversely, her black-and-white prints evoke the timelessness of these images and their strong visual and cultural connections to historical photographs of the civil rights movement.

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Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2014

Dawoud Bey
American, born 1953
Pigmented inkjet printPurchase with funds from The Friends of Photography, 2016.241In this powerful diptych, Dawoud Bey pays tribute to the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing of 1963 by juxtaposing two portraits of present-day Birmingham residents. The young girl on the right is the same age as one of the four young victims of the bombing, and the woman on the left is the age that victim would be now had she not been killed in the attack.Bey vividly remembers seeing photographs from the civil rights movement as a child: “While I had indeed begun to experience the sting of racism as a black student bussed into previously white schools as a part of the first wave of Northern school integration, I had never experienced anything like the raw, naked violence that these pictures depicted.”

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Ebenezer, 2013

David Alekhuogie
American, born 1986
Archival pigment printPurchase with funds from the Friends of Photography, 2018.12

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Taking its title from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech before his assassination in 1968, “A Fire That No Water Could Put Out” reflects on the fiftieth anniversary of this tumultuous year in American history. Following his death in Memphis, Dr. King’s enormous funeral procession through Atlanta took over the city’s streets with thousands of heartbroken Americans who gathered to celebrate his life and legacy. While his assassination is often described as the closing bookend on the civil rights movement, activism across the intervening fifty years has proven that the movement for racial equality and justice in the United States is not a finished story.

Through some of the most powerful images from the High’s significant collection of civil rights photography, this installation underscores how photography can chronicle and even shape history. Historical works, including several recent acquisitions, are juxtaposed with contemporary photographs that speak to the past’s reverberations into the present and future. The installation is arranged into three sections: the era of Dr. King’s leadership, the year of his death, and contemporary reflections on the civil rights movement’s enduring legacy. These artworks demonstrate the wide range of artistic responses to the movement, from photojournalism to conceptualism, from tender portraits to charged landscapes.

Premier Exhibition Series Partner

Exhibition Series Sponsors

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation, The Antinori Foundation, Ann and Tom Cousins, Sarah and Jim Kennedy, Jane and Hicks Lanier, Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters

Barbara and Ron Balser, Corporate Environments, Peggy Foreman, James F. Kelly Charitable Trust, Jane Smith Turner Foundation, The Lubo Fund, Margot and Danny McCaul, Joyce and Henry Schwob

Generous support is also provided by

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Howell Exhibition Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund