May 21, 2006

Seeing The Unseen, Fifty Years Later


By Contributing Blogger, Cara Finnegan.

In late February the Birmingham (Ala.) News published a collection of pictures of the city’s civil rights era struggles. The man on the right is Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham civil rights leader. News photographer Robert Adams captured this moment as Shuttlesworth was attempting to enter a whites-only waiting room at the Birmingham Terminal Station on March 6, 1957.

Five thousand never-before-published photos like this one were discovered in a closet by an intern at the newspaper in 2004. The article about the discovery says that many photographs were suppressed by the paper in an effort to cover up embarrassing truths about the city’s race relations. Just a few years after this picture was made, Birmingham’s black citizens would be tortured by Bull Connor’s police dogs, slammed into brick walls by his fire hoses, and devastated by a church bombing that killed four young girls.

All of the pictures are worth study, but I am riveted by this one.

Look at the parallel body language of Shuttlesworth and his white adversary. They are practically mirror images of one another, standing there face-to-face, eye-to-eye and maybe soon even nose-to-nose. In Birmingham circa 1957 the two men were not socially and politically equal, but in the photographer’s lens they are. In that visual equality I think the camera’s telling us something: things are about to change in Birmingham. And what about those cameras? My eye is drawn equally to them. The very presence of the cameras escalates the drama of the confrontation. My gaze keeps bouncing back and forth between the photographer on the far left of the frame and the one standing between the two men, looking as if he might use his camera to break up the fight. He also looks like he’s in the middle of changing his film, signaling to us perhaps that there will be more of this story to tell.

At the News web site you can also access audio of Shuttlesworth and Lamar Weaver, a white supporter of civil rights, narrating their harrowing experience in the Terminal Station that day. The combination of image and voice bears powerful witness.

The BAG welcomes Cara Finnegan as a new regular contributing blogger.  Cara is an associate professor of speech communication and art history at the University of Illinois. She is a communication historian whose research specializes in the political uses of photography.

(image: Robert Adams/ Birmingham News.  March 6, 1957. caption: The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is stopped before entering the whites only waiting room at Birmingham’s Terminal station. This photo came one day after the Alabama Public Service Commission ruled that the waiting rooms must remain segregated. Shuttlesworth informed the media of his plans to integrate the waiting rooms and was followed by reporters, photographers and a white mob estimated at more than 100. After being told that he was not wanted inside, Shuttlesworth replied: “It’s not up to you to tell me where to go.”)

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