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A Turbulent Era Captured in Black and White

Dark, angry eyes stare out from a young African American. In her hands is a sign with a single word: "Justice."

Photographs of the U.S. civil rights movement capture a time of hope, anger, violence, and political turmoil. Printed in newspapers and magazines, the photos brought racial tensions from the segregated South to the doorsteps of people across the world during the 1950s and '60s.

"The camera [was a] weapon of the civil rights movement and helped further the cause," says Cissy Anklam, chief curator at the Arlington, Virginia, Newseum. The museum, dedicated to the news media, is hosting "Black and White: Images from the Civil Rights Movement," an exhibit that Anklam says captures the mood of an era.

"The black and white makes them much more powerful…it's a more intimate look," says Anklam, explaining why she chose not to display color photos. "It speaks more to the movement…the stark reality of the situation."

The Naked Truth

A sign in the exhibit quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. as saying that through photography, racist cruelty was "imprisoned in a luminous glare, revealing the naked truth to the world."

Photographers of the civil rights movement often worked for the cause, capturing courage and indignities alike on film. Even independent photographers were won over by what they saw and the people they met, says Anklam.

"The typical ethic of the photojournalist just getting the shot and not getting involved didn't happen here."

Several of the exhibit's photographs show protesters en masse. In Memphis, Tennessee, Ernest C. Withers shot hundreds of striking sanitation workers—each with a sign proclaiming: "I am a man."

Charles Moore captured some of the movement's most dangerous moments. "I would do anything to avoid confrontation," he said. "I'd let people trip me, jostle me, pull my hair, and threaten to smash my camera. My goal was to avoid being arrested; that would stop me from working."

Contrasts in Black and White

Danny Lyon turned the camera to see from the eyes of protesters: policemen lounge, joking, jeering, one making an obscene gesture at ministers marching through town.

This photograph, says Anklam, shows "the white [racist] attitude of the time," and contrasts with the protesters' determination.

The sometimes bleak black and white photographs also illustrate the indignities suffered by African Americans. In one photo, a family stands on a road, evicted from its home; in another, segregated drinking fountains speak of the extremes of society's division.

Anklam points to an Ernest Withers photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. sitting in a desegregated bus as one of her favorites. The Montgomery bus boycott and resulting desegregation "really launched Martin Luther King as a leader of the civil rights movement," she says. "But look how young he is…he looks nervous."

She moves to a darker photograph of King at the United Nations, made years after the bus photo. "The weight of the world was in his eyes and on his shoulders," she says.

"Black and White: Images From the Civil Rights Movement" is on display at the Arlington, Virginia, Newseum from February 9 to April 15.

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