Civil rights photography is incomparable to any other form of the art. There is no other form of photography that captures, at its essence, a group of people crying out for their own humanity to be recognized.
As the latter half of the 20th century illustrated, and this past year reminded us, the fight for civil rights is a war, not a battle. Small fights matter, but it takes a strong, unified coalition of all races acting in consistent and trustworthy faith, to vanquish the evil powers of racism and all that it permeates.
There is no similarity to civil rights photography because there are no other photographs that can capture such vivid and visceral emotions that represent a time. Whether it be a photograph of MLK speaking, a group of people protesting police brutality, or a little girl walking with poise while racist adults eight times her age scream at her, civil rights photography cannot be mimicked.
And in its most intrinsic nature, it cannot be forgotten. Here are 10 civil rights photographs that are equally harrowing as they are inspiring for a new generation.
This picture is as iconic as they come. Brothers in arms, freedom fighters marching for justice.
No violence, no seething tempers, no fear. These men, led by MLK in the middle, know they are doing no wrong. Even moreso, they are doing what is undeniably right, judged not by man or woman, but by something greater.
With the late great John Lewis included in this civil rights photograph, let us be reminded how recent these civil rights marches and demonstrations are.
“I come here to urge every person under the sound of my voice, to go to the polls on the third of November and vote your conviction.”Martin Luther King Jr.
Sound familiar? Freedom fighters have been calling for the disenfranchised to get out and vote for decades. And we just saw in 2020, how it can pay off.
It is deeply impressive how poised MLK was, constantly in the spotlight, looked up to by so many. And still not letting fear and anger consume him.
We leave you with this beautiful image of MLK and his family. He did not fall prey to despair, even though the anger from all he had seen and knew could consume the best of people. As candid an image as you will see, this MLK photograph fills us with joy.
Rosa Parks photographed
Rosa Parks is one of the most famous civil rights icons in U.S. history. Her disobedience, her bravery in standing up to what she knew deeply in her heart was right, inspires us greatly.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day, I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”Rosa Parks
Parks famously refused to give up her seat for a white person on the front of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was subsequently arrested. The image below shows her face well, ostensibly unperturbed because she had had enough.
The first image, however, shows Parks in more peace. Her decision to not move for the white person on the bus inspired the Black community to boycott Montgomery buses for over a year. Eventually, in November 1956, a decision was made that bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Gordon Parks photography
An iconic image. Gordon Parks is widely known as one of the most important civil rights photographers of all time. His work defines a generation of social justice, and it has inspired generations of photographers to emulate his passion and skills.
“The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed.”Gordon Parks
How fitting is that quote, for it captures the extreme bravery of civil rights leaders like MLK, while also inspiring photographers like Gordon Parks to always strive for more.
Gordon Parks was not just a photographer, but an activist too, and we shall remember him as such.
Angela Davis photographed
Known as one of the most influential civil rights leaders in U.S. history, Angela Davis continues to shine. The civil rights photography that captured her in her natural states is some of certain photographers’ most influential work.
“When you talk about a revolution, most people think violence, without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you’re striving for.”Angela Davis
Do her words stand in stark contrast to something we all heard recently? We heard a lot of backlash over the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, how the protestors could have gone about things a different way. Angela Davis’ words will forever ring true about how a revolution is not determined, or remembered, by the journey, but rather by its goals/decisions at the conclusion.
Her insight will always be appreciated and inspiring for those seeking to ensure justice and freedom for everyone.
Ruby Bridges photographed
There is no greater indication of how recent the sweeping civil rights movement of the past was than the fact that Ruby Bridges is only 66 years old. A civil rights icon, activist, author, and speaker, Bridges came into national attention over the New Orleans school desegregation crisis.
Her poise in walking through crowds of white adults screaming expletives and hateful rhetoric at her, even with demonstrative threats, will always be inspiring to me. The bravery that must have taken is nearly unfathomable.
Fred Hampton photographed
Fred Hampton was the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP). At just 21 years old, he was a leader of the party as a whole and a leader in the civil rights movement.
He was killed unlawfully by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in conjunction with the F.B.I. in 1969 due to the U.S. government’s fear of his influence. Hampton is the subject of Lakeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya’s upcoming film, Judas and the Black Messiah.
We will never forget Hampton and what he meant to the Black community in Chicago and beyond. And due to poignant civil rights photography having captured him, we will always have a piece of him to look back to.
Muhammad Ali photographed
Muhammad Ali is best known as the greatest boxer of all time. But his efforts outside the cage are even more prominent. He was an activist, and vehemently against the war in Vietnam, or at least Black people’s forced inclusion in it.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”Ali, February, 17, 1966.
Ali is both a model for how to achieve success and stay at the top. And for calling out what is wrong and speaking on what is right. We will always remember him for his impact on the world, and for always staying true to what he believed in. The civil rights photography surrounding him contains some of the most profound images ever.
This civil rights photograph shows icons Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali together. The boxer was celebrating his victory over Sonny Liston and his new title – Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Malcolm X photographed
The discourse around Malcolm X is one of the most contentious of any icons in modern history. He advocated and insisted upon the liberation of Black people, but had a different idea of how to get there than MLK and others.
What is undeniable, however, is his impact on his community in Harlem and the entire world. As Angela Davis alluded to, it is not the means for securing a revolution that matter, but the goals at the end of it.
Malcolm X wanted justice for his Black brothers and sisters, just like more-revered MLK did. Let us remember that about him above all else.
Maya Angelou photographed
The late great Maya Angelou is captured here in one of the most iconic civil rights photographs ever. The poet is remembered for her beautiful, poignant words, as well as her civil rights efforts. May she rest in peace.
John Lewis photographed
John Lewis, seen earlier with Martin Luther King Jr., sadly passed away last July.
His memory reminds us that laws are arbitrary, and often upheld by those who wish to stay in power. This civil rights photograph, and all that captured him on that day with MLK, show that fighting back against oppressive powers is necessary.
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”John Lewis
Lewis also rose to become a Georgia congressman, fighting from inside politics to ensure a better future for our youth.
Let us all remember that civil rights photography is not some ancient thing. Some of those who were photographed and listed above, either recently passed or are still living today.
The fight moves on, and photography, like that of Gordon Parks, helps show us the way. We do not need to reinvent the wheel to fight for civil rights. We can ask our elders what they did, what they wish they could’ve done, and more.
These ten great civil rights leaders photographed remind us of a world both seemingly far away, and at the same time, distinctly familiar.