Photography played a crucial role in the civil rights movement. Powerful images taken by professional and amateur photographers alike spread awareness across the country about the ongoing struggle for equality. Because of the principle of nonviolent resistance, photographs showed civil rights activists quietly and peacefully enduring often violent abuse at the hands of authority figures. These photographs trace events in the movement both large and small from 1956 to 1967.
In 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.Gordon Parks
One of the most iconic images of the civil rights era, this photograph shows 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford walking alone in front of Little Rock High School while being taunted by a menacing, hateful mob. Eckford was alone because she failed to receive notification that the date for desegregating the school had been postponed by a day. The following morning, the nine students chosen to integrate the previously all white Little Rock Central High School returned together under armed guard.Unknown Photographer
On September 3, 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to attend a hearing for fellow civil rights activist Ralph David Abernathy at the Montgomery, Alabama, courthouse, when he was violently arrested. Photographer Charles Moore followed the commotion from the street into the police station, where King was booked for loitering. Once inside, Moore recalled, “I saw an opening on the other side of the counter. I ran there real quickly. Nobody stopped me.”
From his privileged place behind the police counter, Moore captured this image of King being manhandled by the arresting officers, while Coretta Scott King looked on. The Associated Press distributed Moore’s photograph across the country, prompting nationwide outrage.Charles Moore
Elizabeth Eckford and the Little Rock Nine successfully enrolled at Central High School in 1957, but protests against integration of Southern schools continued for years. In this press photograph, firemen use hoses to suppress the forward movement of pro-segregationist marchers carrying American flags.
Many photographs from this time show such violent crowd-suppression techniques being used against civil rights marchers, but here the firemen aggressively spray activists on the other side of the issue. The photographer stood directly behind the fireman and police chief, who are separated from the protestors by a great, white wall of water. By framing the image in this way, the photographer subtly implicates the viewer in the violence.Unknown Photographer
Nonviolent resistance was a key tenet of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the way after studying the strategies Mahatma Ghandi had used in India. By refusing to move or fight back, activists exposed the barbarism of segregation and institutionalized racism.
James Karales’s photograph shows the rigorous training administered by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that young people went through to prepare themselves for activism. These civil rights workers learned not to respond to even the most extreme provocations, including aggressive verbal abuse and vigilante violence, that frequently occurred at demonstrations and sit-ins. At the same time, activists were asked to assume a deep faith in the possibility of human transformation through peace and love.James Karales
Ernest Withers was one of the first African Americans permitted to join the Memphis police force in the 1950s. Concurrently, he joined the civil rights movement early on as both an organizer and a photographer.
In this photograph, the encounter between the police and a peaceful protester with his daughter mirrors Withers’s own conflict between his role as a protester and the racist laws he was employed to uphold as a civil servant. In 2010, an investigation revealed that Withers had worked as a paid informant for the FBI during his years in the movement, a fact that further complicates the legacy of this important Southern photographer.Ernest Withers
The poised, introspective body language of these young demonstrators praying during a demonstration exhibits the effectiveness of their passive-resistance training. By remaining calm and peaceful in situations that could often turn violent and chaotic, protesters sent a strong message to the world by not engaging with the brutality they faced.
At the time he took this image, SNCC photographer Danny Lyon was a mere twenty years old; his subject, future Congressman John Lewis, was 22. The photograph’s formal elegance and Lewis’s commanding focus suggest his strong clarity of purpose and natural leadership abilities.Danny Lyon
Bill Hudson captured this shocking altercation between officer Dick Middleton, fifteen-year-old Walter Gadsden, and a police dog from only few feet away, bringing viewers into the brutal immediacy of the scene. The use of attack dogs was one amongst many severe techniques ordered by Bull Connor, fervent segregationist and Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, to break up a peaceful protest in Kelly Ingram Park comprising mostly children and teenagers.
The photographs published from this day went on to incite greater national support for the civil rights movement by both public and federal legislators, who one year later signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Hudson’s photograph inspired a sculpture made to honor the protestors, which was installed in the park where these events unfolded.Bill Hudson
During the summer of 1964, more than 1,000 volunteers from across the country traveled on “Freedom Rides,” like the one pictured in this photograph. They rode to Mississippi to participate in a massive voter registration drive and educational initiative organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in a project called Freedom Summer.
Over the course of the summer, 1,062 participants were arrested, 80 Freedom Summer workers were beaten, 37 churches were bombed or burned, 30 black-owned homes and businesses were bombed or burned, 4 civil rights workers were killed, and at least 3 black Mississippians were murdered for supporting the civil rights movement.Steve Schapiro
Freedom 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.Charles Moore
Though not a conventional documentarian of the civil rights movement, Roy DeCarava approached photography as a way to chronicle the black lived experience in New York City. In New York, segregation was not the law of the land as it was in the south, but the presence of overt and institutional racism affected him deeply.
DeCarava also actively fought for equal rights and appreciation for black photographers’ work. He protested Life Magazine for the lack of diversity among its staff photographers and co-founded The Black Photographers Annual, a publication that celebrated and shared the work of black photographers across the country.Roy DeCarava
President Johnson and several key black leaders of the day, including (left to right) Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP; James Farmer, National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and Whitney Young, Head of the Urban League, met at the White House to discuss the president’s war on poverty and concerns over the high percentage of poverty among blacks across the country. Johnson later signed into law the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which built on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.Unknown Photographer, United Press International