Formal education on the Civil Rights Movement is, for the most part, superficial. Most students receive a surface level knowledge on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Mississippi Freedom Summer or the Selma to Montgomery march—which usually rounds out education about Civil Rights Movement in most American schools. Also, in most cases, the movement is limited to the South.
Not much is known about the Civil Rights Movement above the Mason Dixon line, but activism in the North was very much needed. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement up north thrived. Cities like Detroit, Chicago, Brooklyn and Cincinnati, among others, went toe-to-toe with the white establishment for their first class citizenship. These battles were mostly documented by black owned publications such as Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and New York Amsterdam news, but mostly overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
In his recently released book, North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography (Getty Publications), independent scholar Mark Speltz—with the help of photojournalists and members of the black press—pieced together over 100 photographs, many of which had never been seen before. Accompanied with essays, this book of powerful pictures capture the Civil Rights Movement in cities such as Milwaukee, New York and Los Angeles and St. Louis.
VIBE caught up with Speltz to get some answers to our questions about North of Dixie, adults using children to protest and much more.
VIBE: What inspired this book?
Mark Speltz: It came out of a graduate school project. I was in a photography and visual cultural class and we were asked to look at a photograph and read it, interpret it, tell a story about it, use it as a source. I knew I wanted to do civil rights photography, I just wasn’t sure what kind. I was looking at a traditional and iconic photograph of a student from the ‘60s, and thought about doing that. My advisor in Milwaukee said: “You should look into Milwaukee’s civil rights movement,” and I said, “I don’t know a thing about what happened in Milwaukee.” I grew up in Minnesota and was educated in public schools and looked at everything that was in my textbooks and was really drawn to compelling photography, but had never seen anything that was outside of the South. I was really familiar with Birmingham, Selma and Central High in Little Rock. I was really familiar with those visual scenes, but I didn’t know anything from Chicago, New York or Milwaukee, so that’s when it started.
Why, in your opinion, is the Civil Rights Movement in the North overlooked?
We’re able to tell the story of the movement in the South that makes us feel good. There were some really concrete victories. They desegregated public buses, their voting rights, schools were desegregated to a degree, they were in the magazines, they were in the news and they were witnessed often through photography. So, it was a story of real change that was made often legally, and through sit-ins, marches and speeches. But elsewhere it can be a more difficult story. Because [there were] a lot of civil rights issues in the North… we’ll use New York as an example. Desegregating schools, neighborhoods that are redlined and you can’t move out of them, hiring discrimination—those issues are much more difficult to legislate away. More difficult to explain, more rooted in place and time. Not something that change can be effective quickly. So it’s a more complicated tale, not as easy to tell, not as easy to celebrate, and so a lot of times it’s overlooked.
How did we look to other nations with all of this mess going on?
At the time, the nation was easier to appear to be the most forward thinking nation in the world. Anything that made our democracy look like it couldn’t be fixed would make us look bad in the eyes of the Russians. When the national press put pressure on the local readers in Birmingham, or when Dr. King put pressure on the Kennedy Administration, change was happening, and it was often for that fear of looking bad internationally. It was always easy to say that the race issue was a southern issue. “They’re backward down there. It’s their fault.” It allows you to point a finger and not deal with the issues that are going in your own backyard.
What was the point of using kids as young as 6 and ten years old to protest?
It’s a great question that I don’t think I have the entire answer to. I think that adults involve children because, one: Not many people are going to attack children. Even the most violent and racist law enforcement officers. They probably won’t turn fire hoses against eight-year-olds. Now, they were certainty turning them against high school children in Birmingham. But also there are young kids who want to be involved and are going to show up at meetings. If the leaders feel that they can ensure their safety, I think they will take them along. It’s a lot more colorful to show a younger kid out there helping. One of the powerful photos in the book shows a kid from Oklahoma City holding up a hand written note that says, “We’ve agreed to stay at this sit-in to desegregate a lunch counter, and the manager is not going to let us use the bathroom.” So, I think it makes quite a statement when kids as young as eight, 10 and 11 who are willing to be there. The youth are the future, the youth of the community, so I think it’s all tied together in that.
It almost seems as if children were used as a strategy during the movement?
In Birmingham—this isn’t in the book—they were competing approaches as to whether or not to send the children out to be arrested. King and SCLC ended up going that route. By sending thousands of children out they were filling the jails. They were challenging [Eugene “Bull”] Connor and officials to arrest [them], stretched out the city’s infrastructure and eventually they helped put more pressure on them. So, it worked in that case. But Malcolm X and others were like, ‘Only fools send their children and women into that situation.’ So there’s not a universal agreement on whether or not it was a wise tactic. I used youth loosely because kids as young as seven or eight were doing sit-ins in Oklahoma City. Kids as young as 10-15 going up into high school age were sitting in in Chicago, sitting in Baltimore. Sometimes decades earlier than the college sit-ins that tore up the south, and really ignited the southern movement. So, I use youth loosely, but there are pictures of kids Oklahoma City in the late ‘50s.
Photography must have been used a weapon also to combat civil rights issues?
The photography became a weapon. Their ability to expose violence, expose inhumane treatment. Expose second-class citizenship to a broader audience was absolutely essential to advancing the civil rights struggle. To get the pictures in Life magazine, suddenly white middle class Americans eyes were open sitting in Topeka, Kansas, eyes were opened up to an injustice that maybe they aware of, but didn’t think about, suddenly it made it more real. The most concrete visible photographs like a police dog sic’ing a black protestor—well, they didn’t know exactly what was happening. They knew it was a civil rights rally, and you could quickly read what was going on there. Moving people’s conscious in the right direction—photography and visual culture played a major role in that. So, yes I do think it was part of the strategy. I saw a quote somewhere that says something like, “As soon as the police dogs were out and they knew those pictures were being captured, the protestors were excited because they knew they had front-page material.”
I noticed also that in some northern cities, there were no signs confining blacks to certain spaces.
In a lot of northern cities, it was illegal to post signs like that. In Pittsburgh, for example, when they opened up this brand new pool in the ‘30s or ‘40s, there were no signs, but it was well understood that blacks were not welcomed there. Word gets around that you’re not welcome. This was 20 years, or so, before blacks were able to swim at this particular pool.
Your book is also of absent of national civil rights leaders. Was that a conscious move?
I want the people to see that there was only one Dr. King; there’s one Malcolm X. The rest are really unknown individuals who dedicated thei day, their lives, they youth or whatever it may be. Whatever moment they were at in those pictures, they were dedicating themselves to that struggle. They individually came together to make a difference. They weren’t really waiting for a savior or a leader to come. When Dr. King came to Chicago, there were thirty local organizations lined up beside him. That’s thirty local leaders. That’s the big news, that he arrived in the midst of a local movement. I think it’s important to see that ordinary people could fight for change. You didn’t have to wait for a leader like Dr. King.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
The main thing that I want people to take away—and, it may be really simple—but for me it was really eye opening to realize that there were campaigns and civil rights struggles in every city. That was really eye opening to me. Kids today—or anybody that was born since the Civil Rights Movement learns about the Civil Rights Movement through photographs, books, documentaries, and visual material—you might learn about it from people in your community as well. But the photographs from beyond the south hadn’t circulated that much. It’s important to share them and help people understand that the movement was nationwide, that this was not a southern movement alone.
North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography can be purchased at Amazon.com.