Photographing Civil Rights History Decades ago, photographer Bob Adelman volunteered to take photos for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other early civil rights groups. Today, his images of Martin Luther King Jr., and demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., are iconic.
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Photographing Civil Rights History

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Photographing Civil Rights History

Photographing Civil Rights History

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Birmingham, Selma, the march on Washington, they're places moments in time that have come to symbolize the civil rights movement. And many of those moments, the water hoses, the racism, the dignity of resistance were captured on film by photographer Bob Adelman. Through his lens, Adelman brought that iconic era to the nation showing African-Americans as they experienced historic events in everyday life. Those photographs are part of a book called "Mine Eyes Have Seen," bearing witness to the struggle for civil rights. It's just out from Life Great Photographers series.

Bob, welcome.

Mr. BOB ADELMAN (Author, "Mine Eyes Have Seen"): My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So, you know, I want to talk about some specific photos. But first, let's talk a little bit about the book. It's quite a compilation. How did it come about?

Mr. ADELMAN: Starting in the '50s, I began photographing African-American life. At 15 or 16, I used to sneak into bird land and I saw Billy Holiday and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and rather than, I suppose, the historic view, I feel that blacks were innately superior. And for whatever the reasons, bicameral it wasn't a movement at that time, I just found myself with a very rich subject matter. And as soon as I heard about the movement, I was very touched about when the students started sitting in.

There was no real politics in the 1950s. But when the students started to (unintelligible) and that was real politics. And, you know, change would come from that. I just joined up as a volunteer with the corps and sneak working for them for pictures that would be used to raise money, to be put posters, whatever I could do to help change things.

CHIDEYA: What about the photograph of Ralph Ellison? You captioned it, master of them that no. What do you mean by that?

Mr. ADELMAN: Well, I had the great privilege of getting to know Ralph very, very well over the years. And no one had more understanding or insight into the American experience and particularly the Afro-American experience. And I think, today, in a certain way, Ralph would say, well, Barack Obama's about the right color that anybody who isn't American, part of what being American means is that we have absorbed the tragic history of race. We have hopefully pointed ourselves in a better direction. But certainly, the tragic history of African-Americans in our life is a part of every Americans' experience. And as Ralph would say, Bob, I don't know how black you are and I don't know how white I am, and it didn't mean pigmentation, it just meant that anyone who is an American - that language has been affected by the richness of African-American experience and expression. Our heroes - sports heroes and cultural heroes like Dr. King or Ralph Ellison.

(Soundbite of laughter)

That's an example of…

CHIDEYA: Yeah. There's the…

Mr. ADELMAN: (Unintelligible) shape where we're dancing to African-American music. So all Americans are a mixture, particularly Ralph emphasized in our conversations, that all the great American writers certainly of the 19th century emphasized there's a special sensitivity to African-Americans was incumbent on all Americans because, you know, this country was torn apart by the race question and resolved it in, you know, in favor of equality. Ralph believed in the promise of American life. And I think he had good reason to do so.

CHIDEYA: And talking about progress, looking back at one of your photographs from 1963, you see four, young people holding hands. There's a crowd behind them, they're getting water hosed in Birmingham, Alabama - what were you doing there? What did you feel as well as what did you record?

Mr. ADELMAN: Well, I'd been - I was working with (unintelligible) in honor of the postman's walk, the demonstrations in Birmingham had begun to take off. And the police who had, I guess, exercised whatever restraint they thought they had to had lost it. Bill Conner had called that the dogs and turned the fire hoses on, plaques. And I went up there.

I personally have never seen people treated in such an inhumane way. I was shooting the demonstrations. And it was (unintelligible) behind the cameras, was in front of it, I was hiding behind a tree. And I think 20 years before, had the demonstrators been hosed, they probably would have been hiding behind a tree like me. But instead, they chose not to be intimidated that moment where the use of force would break their spirit had ended. And they eventually turned the hoses off.

Those hoses were so powerful, they could skin the bark off trees. A single individual could not stand up. But as a group, they could. And it became emblematic. That picture was used actually as part of the recruiting for the march on Washington. They made a poster out of that.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned the march on Washington, iconic moments. And you were there. It's 1963, Martin Luther King is facing a huge crowd. You and your camera are just off to his side. Why were you able to get so close?

Mr. ADELMAN: A guest, Robert Kappa, said, you can never get too close. I, of course, had, you know, gotten to know Doc, as we call Dr. King, in Birmingham. We stayed in the same hotel, which was eventually bombed, and had breakfast. And I guess everybody, you know, in the movement knew me.

The press was either on top of the Lincoln Memorial or someplace, you know, up on towers or something, and I was in the crowd. I was very much with the young corps and sneaked demonstrators. But I knew that when Doc spoke, the place to be was, you know, on the podium, and I kind of moved up the steps. And every - as I say, everybody knew me. And there was nobody else there. And, you know, it was just breathtaking to - I mean, you know, at some point, I guess he put down his speech. And he was just speaking extemporaneously.

CHIDEYA: Why is this book important now?

Mr. ADELMAN: Well, it took me all this time to come to terms with all of this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADELMAN: So it's terribly important to me that I have kind of sorted this all out and made sense of it for myself. But I think race is still a very difficult topic in American life because it's America's original sin and, you know, and something that we all must do whatever we can to rectify.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bob, it's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. ADELMAN: Sure.

CHIDEYA: Bob Adelman is an award-winning photographer and activist. The book "Mine Eyes Have Seen: Bearing Witness to the Struggle for Civil Rights" compiles his photos of African-Americans and the civil rights movement. An exhibit of his photos opens next week in New York City at the Westwood Gallery. And he joined us from the studios of WLRN in Miami.

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