Disbanding the Timeline: The Ongoing Civil Rights Trial in America
Approximately 156 years ago, in April of 1865, the United States abolished slavery in all 50 states. Since then there has been a suppressed division of civil rights among African American citizens who were granted equal freedom and human rights based on the 13th amendment of the Constitution. To this day, in May of the year 2021, we as a country still see the negative effects of inequality and racism toward black citizens of America. It is undeniable that these issues continue to plague the justice of our nation, and to contradict this assessment would lead to an adverse effect on one’s argument. However, this does not mean that there are members of our communities that do challenge the notion that every American lives under the same privileges’ regardless of race, wealth, sexuality or religion. These members of our society consist of individuals, medium platforms, and other constructed groups that preach their views in manners that reflect those of the defendants of slavery and hatred during the time leading up to, during and directly following the Civil War. One thing that these members of classic American conservative views can agree on is that the civil rights movements within the United States is over; that all previous minority groups now have their equality throughout the U.S, and that there is no further need to discuss the issues that have been causing protests, riots and confusion throughout our country for the last 150 years.
The idea that the civil rights activism and awareness is no longer needed implies that the timeline the civil rights movement has come to an end. While certain aspects of this movement can be plotted from their beginning stages to their successful resolution, the movement as a whole has, and may never, come to an end. Of course, it can be argued that the equal rights movement started with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution, but from this point on we can see no end in sight. For the last century and a half, we as a nation have been exposed to the shocking images of racism and injustice acts. To this day we are still plagued by the disturbing photographs of dehumanizing actions that are being taken upon the African American citizens of our country. Although these photographs have helped promote the undisputed problems of inequality in America, they have not opened the eyes of the protestors of civil rights and parity for all Americans.
During the first major wave of the African American civil rights protests we saw leaders such as Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. lead their communities and other oppressed citizens into a fight for freedom. The 1950s and 60s was a time of eeriness in America. During this time, the United States saw 18 years olds shipped off for death in Vietnam, women fighting for jobs and pay, homosexuals began to take a stand for their rights and African Americans lead the charge with their powerful leaders and hope for a better tomorrow. As all these groups began to move into uncharted waters the need for documentation of speeches, marches, protests became just as important as the events themselves. Photographers from all over traveled to equal rights events in order to expose the nation and the world to the movements that were happening throughout the U.S. The photos of these events helped to push the knowledge of the changing times in America and without the visual documentation there would be less exposure to outsiders. Soon enough many photographers were beginning to see their powerful images being published in places such as the New York Times, The Washington Post, Time and Life Magazines and other national news platforms. The photo journalism era found a whole new meaning as pictures and images helped bring stories to life and place perspective around the march towards freedom for these American citizens.
More than ever before we have access to photo journalism of every event we want to see. Through an internet search we can find hundreds of photos that allow us to live vicariously through the photographer. To this day we still have photographers documenting the same protests, marches, riots, speeches and civil rights movements that we saw in the 1950s and 60s. Why? Because the strive for equality in America is needed now just as much as it was 60 years ago. The nation has not moved on from its discriminatory ways and citizens everywhere are fighting for change. In photographs from the 1960s we see peaceful protests interrupted by local police, opposing citizens using brutal force against African Americans, deployment of the United States National Guard to protect citizens and their rights to peaceful protests for change. In these 60 years our nation has not progressed to a point of fairness for all. In these 60 years we have seen the unnecessary beatings of innocent, unarmed African American citizens. In these 60 years we have seen the acquitment of the police officers who brutally beat Rodney King. In these 60 years we have seen the murder of George Floyd. In these 60 years we have seen the beating, the harassment and the illegal actions taken upon peaceful protestors aching for a change throughout our country. In these 60 years we have seen a lot more.
The timeline of our nations equal rights is a pathetic excuse for those who are unavailable to see a nation that could do better. For the rest of us, we recognize the faults of ourselves and of others. We remain sensitive to the images that we have been seeing for the last 6 decades. These images entice us to join in on the fight, to forget the timeline and to recognize that the now is also the past, and the now is also the future. In my assessment of America’s civil rights timeline I have come across four photographs that dispute the meaning of time, deconstruct a false timeline and layout an argument for change. I have also come to analyze these photographs using scholars and theorists who laid out important visual ideas and arguments for us to consider when challenging these images against the conservative view points of my opposition.
September 3, 1958 at the Montgomery Recorder’s Court House in Montgomery, Alabama. Martin Luther King, Jr. awaits outside the court house as he denied entrance to the courtroom where he attempted to support a friend of his. As he waits on the steps of the courthouse he is told that he is obstructing other citizens and is eventually placed under arrest for loitering. As the two police offers grab ahold and begin to walk King to the police station a photographer from the Montgomery Advertiser, Charles Moore, begins to snap images of the arrest. He follows them all the way up and into the booking station. Moore then sneaks behind the booking desk and captures a photo over the shoulder of the jailer as King is arrested. King, dressed in a full suit is being handcuffed, he rests one arm up against the desk and stares directly into the camera. His wife looks on from beside him as he is taken into custody. This photo is directly wired and used the same day by Life Magazine.
The next day journalists and photographers flood into Montgomery. From here we see a park of protests beginning to take place around the Montgomery area. In 1960 we see another iconic photograph from Charles Moore [Figure 1].
This first photo was taken in downtown Montgomery. Moore snapped this image and soon after left the scene as he worried a riot may break out. Although Moore is a photographer he is also a critic to his own photographs, the power the possess and the impact that they have. In his analysis of his most famous images that were publicized during the era of the civil rights movement Moore gives us an in-depth look at this photograph. On the surface of this photo we see a man with a baseball bat, ready to swing and inflict pain amongst the black citizens on which he embarks. However, Moore shows us that there is a lot more to this image than the we can see with one look. As he began to look this photo over he notices “the picture is cocked at an angle, not intentionally but it adds power to it”, he also shows us that “there was another white man with a hat on that was hitting another black lady over the head with his fist, there’s a man in the left-hand corner with a coke bottle held in his hand just as if it’s a weapon, there is another man standing by a young black man that looks like he’s got something such as a chain in his hand, beyond that on the right there is another white man that has something that looks like a steel rod”¹. These details bring this picture to a new level that we were unable to see before. The most disturbing details about this picture are hidden to the naked eye and without a true analysis these would remain undiscovered. Such as James Elkins’ approach to the representation of bodies among photographs we see here that the details that are barely visible to us are the ones that are truly more frightening². On the surface we encounter one stage of hate, but as we dive into this photograph we discover that this hatred for the blacks of America is an ideology shared by the people of Montgomery.
This hatred does not stop in Montgomery, and it most certainly does not stop in 1960. An important piece of literature to note is Roland Barthes work in his Camera Lucida. In this he plots the photographer as an agent of death, as someone who assists time in assuming death, “with the alibi of the distractedly ‘alive’, of which the photographer is in a sense the professional”³. Once the photo is captured the time stamp is irrelevant, the relevancy relies on the interpretation of the image. The next image in my display comes from 1991, yet the comparisons of imagery deny any true need for knowledge of the date.
Figure 2 is undeniably recognizable for too many people throughout our nation. This photo comes via a recording from George Holliday on March 3, 1991 in front of a bar near his house. The video recording is considered the world’s first viral video and it sparked a backlash of protests, riots and looting throughout the Los Angeles area. However, this also opened the eyes to America of the continued beating of innocent, unarmed African Americans by police officers. This still image of the video shows reinforces the arguments made by Barthes about the death of an image. This picture, along with the image captured by Charles Moore in 1960 can be held side by side for comparison. Once these pictures were shot there was no longer any need to compare them based on the timeline. The only aspect of the image is the feelings that it triggers for the viewers. When the image of white men needlessly beating black citizens surfaced in 1960 there was much less of an outburst. This is because during this time these types of actions were looked at as normal and for some states and people they were encouraged and applauded. However, thirty years later there had been many changes to what was right and wrong. The feelings of African Americans had changed and when the imagery of the Rodney King beatings surfaced the reactions were accurate to the mindsets of the citizens during this time. This, and the acquitment of the officers following the release of the video is what lead to the riots in Los Angeles. The images did not change, the feelings that they produced changed.
In today’s America there is a large number of areas that are open to all kinds of cultures, races, religions and people. However there is still much racism and unwanted hatred that attempts to reinforce the closed timeline that these images argue to disband. This hatred comes from the distant remembrance of a way of life that included slavery, separation of races and inhumane treatment of African Americans. Unfortunately for the United States these beliefs have appeared to be reinforced in many of our police officers around the nation. Citizens saw this in the case of Rodney King and they are still seeing it today. A recent CBS study done by Li Cohen found that there was 164 African Americans killed by police officers in the year of 2020⁴. Many of these people were unarmed and did not pose any threat past a degree that could have been distinguished by using training techniques that are within police guidelines. However, much like the Rodney King incident there is now easy documentation of these incidents; and when a 17-year-old Darnella Frazier pulled out her camera to film the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on May 25 of 2020 the country once again erupted in turmoil over the killing of another African American by a white police officer. This incident lead to weeks of chaos, followed by peaceful protests and forceful push-backs of gatherings. Communities from all over band together to march for a cause, doors opened up about past incidents such as the killing of Breonna Taylor, who was shot six times in her home by police officers in March of 2020. These incidents triggered anger all over the United States and photographs assisted to instill these feelings in more and more people.
As technology grows, everything becomes more and more visual to us as a nation. We are able to have our eyes on multiple things at once and we can stay up to date as we live through the photographers’ lens. This is directly related to why we have seen such an uproar of backlash from disturbed citizens. As we are exposed to these images more and more we feel enticed because the photographers possess the ability to tell us stories through their work⁵. Through the visualization of others willingness and desire for participation in these recent events that include Black Lives Matters rallies, marches, protests and more we feel ourselves aching to make a change beside our peers. Although as we progress we also retreat to our old ways. Peace turns to protests turns to riot turns to looting. We saw much of this during the months following the death of George Floyd.
In Figure 3 we see an image of a peaceful march through Boston, Massachusetts that occurred in June of 2020. These citizens marched for the lives of black Americans and there were many alike this one all over the nation on this same day. In the background we see people of all colors marching for the equal treatment of black lives. Protestors hold signs of encouragement and discouragement alike, they march alone or in groups but they are together in one entity, representing one belief among them. We also see many of the protestors sporting face masks due to the recent pandemic that had overtaken the United States, along with the rest of the world. In the foreground we see two officers of the National Guard standing on guard. In the week before this image was captured the nation saw riots and looting that could only be reprimanded with force. This called for the deployment of the American National Guard to protect the rights of the protestors as well as to retain order among the large events as in the week before local and state police had begun to use force against protestors all over the nation.
For decades we have exposed ourselves to the same truths. In Figure 4 we see an eerie similarity to Figure 3 as if the photographer travelled through time to capture both images for our sake. Figure 4 was captured in 1965, during the Selma March where civil rights activists marched 54 miles from Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery. In the background we see people of all colors marching for equal rights for African American citizens. The protestors carry signs and flags of representation. Some march alone and some march with others but they all march together for a cause they all belief in. In the foreground we see two National Guard officers, deployed by President Johnson to protect the marchers who were beating by local and state police in days before.
These images do not need time stamps. The images themselves are interchangeable with one another. However, what is seen in Figure 3 does not shock us as much as the imagery in Figure 4. As we become more exposed to these images we have become desensitized to the power of the images. We have seen the same images for 65 years. There is no more need to be surprised to the facts because we have already instilled the knowledge of the unusual in our minds. Roland Barthes tells us that the image is dead once it is taken. These photos represent the past as much as they represent the present. As we have become used to the normalcy of these selected images over the last half century we have decreased our disbelief of the visual elements of the imagery. Patrick Maynard shows us how technology has helped us to become desensitized to what we have been exposed to, and after the repeating events we have maintained our interest but we have lost our awe for the image.
We have seen history repeat itself in many ways, many times. However in the matter of civil rights there is still major strives to make new historical views. The timeline set by traditional history is a misrepresentation of the fight for equal rights for African Americans. We have seen treachery over many years as black Americans fight alongside those who support them, claiming themselves for all the world to see. To this day we have repeating images and events that we have become numb too over the last half century. As Roland Barthes tells us, the pictures have already been dead since the shutters closed, the meaning of the image hasn’t changed, only the way we think about the image has. This is the mold for which the disbandment of the timeline that we once saw as normal and correct has been deconstructed through the use of photographic evidence that shows us how civil rights has not come to an end, and with the recent rise in American equality uproar we see that there is in fact no time cap on the fight for rights for African Americans and other oppressed groups throughout our nation.
: “Charles Moore: I Fight With My Camera.” YouTube, uploaded by Daniel Love, 1 Sept. 2005, www.youtube.com/watch?v=dob4o6O2LzA&t=532s&ab_channel=DanielLove.
: Elkins, James. Pictures of the Body: Pain and Metamorphosis. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999.
: Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
: Li, Cohen . “Police in the U.S. Killed 164 Black People in the First 8 Months of 2020. These Are Their Names. (Part I: January-April).” CBS News, 11 Sept. 2020, www.cbsnews.com/pictures/black-people-killed-by-police-in-the-u-s-in-2020.
: Maynard, Patrick. The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1997.