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This Light of Ours

Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement

Leslie G. Kelen

Publication Year: 2012

This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement is a paradigm-shifting publication that presents the Civil Rights Movement through the work of nine activist photographers-men and women who chose to document the national struggle against segregation and other forms of race-based disenfranchisement from within the movement. Unlike images produced by photojournalists, who covered breaking news events, these photographers lived within the movement-primarily within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) framework-and documented its activities by focusing on the student activists and local people who together made it happen.

The core of the book is a selection of 150 black-and-white photographs, representing the work of photographers Bob Adelman, George Ballis, Bob Fitch, Bob Fletcher, Matt Herron, David Prince, Herbert Randall, Maria Varela, and Tamio Wakayama. Images are grouped around four movement themes and convey SNCC's organizing strategies, resolve in the face of violence, impact on local and national politics, and influence on the nation's consciousness. The photographs and texts of This Light of Ours remind us that the movement was a battleground, that the battle was successfully fought by thousands of "ordinary" Americans among whom were the nation's courageous youth, and that the movement's moral vision and impact continue to shape our lives.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Frontispiece

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. 9-12

Anyone who has worked long on a book project knows that a preface is written after a project is completed as a way of providing a synopsis of the effort and an introduction to the reader. The preface to This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement isn’t an exception. Nevertheless, in preparing to write it, I found myself reluctant to admit the project is over. In large part, this is because the project has...

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pp. 13-18

A historian wrote of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): “Central aspects of the social movement embodied by SNCC were its nurture of a media consciousness among its activists and an insistence on the historicity of the struggle itself—a preoccupation of leaving a record as being part of the organization’s collective awareness.1”...

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Photographing Civil Rights

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pp. 19-25

The mantle of civil rights photography was not a one-size-fits-all garment. There were as many styles to this work as there were civil rights photographers, or at least so it appears looking back over the years and reconstructing the experiences of these activist photographers of the sixties. But if most of us approached our task clad in our own personal outlook and strategies,...

The Photographs

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Part One: Black Life

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pp. 28-59

Grassroots organizing across the “Black Belt” best describes the 1960s Southern Freedom Movement. It was dangerous work punctuated by murder. The Black Belt curves through hundreds of counties from Maryland to Texas. In many, black people are a majority. It still contains some of America’s poorest counties, like Quitman County in Mississippi where a third of the population...

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Part Two: Organizing for Freedom

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pp. 60-126

Community leaders, many of whom were World War II veterans and led NAACP branches, encouraged SNCC to make voting rights a priority. White-black population ratios indicated that gaining the right to vote would cause a dramatic and beneficial shift of power relations at state and local levels. Thus, from an organization...

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Part Three: State and Local Terror

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pp. 127-161

Violence against the freedom movement was systemic. In county after county, so-called forces of law and order turned a blind eye to what can only be called terrorism. The Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups engaged in relentless warfare against change while police departments, sheriffs’ departments,...

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Part Four: Meredith March against Fear and Black Power

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pp. 162-190

On June 5, 1966, James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, set out from Memphis, Tennessee, for Jackson, Mississippi, on a solitary “March against Fear.” Meredith sought to show that in the new era blacks in America could walk, and register to vote, without...

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Reflection: How I First Saw King and Found the Movement

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pp. 191-203

The photographs in This Light of Ours evoke memories of a Southern Freedom Movement that enabled ordinary people—some of them landless peasants—to become extraordinary participants in the American democratic experiment. Although the subjects featured in this splendid collection include national leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the images also...

The Photographers: Interviews and Biographies

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Tamio Wakayama

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pp. 206-211

Tamio Wakayama was born on April 3, 1941, a few months before the outbreak of the Pacific War. He and his family were part of the community of some twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians (Nikkei) living along the coast of British Columbia who were declared enemy aliens and placed in remote internment camps for the war years. After the war, the internees were faced with the choice of being deported to Japan or else settling east of the Rockies....

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Herbert Randall

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pp. 212-216

Herbert Eugene Randall, Jr., was born on December 16, 1936, in the Bronx and is of Shinnecock Indian, African American, and West Indian ancestry. He studied photography under Harold Feinstein in 1957, and from 1958 to 1966 worked as a freelance photographer, publishing with the Associated Press, United Press International, and Black Star. Randall also was a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a forum formed by African American...

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Maria Varela

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pp. 217-222

Maria Varela was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in the upper Midwest and the Northeast with a rigorous Catholic education. She attended Saint Louis High School in Chicago and then went to Alverno College in Milwaukee, where she became student body president. Throughout her formal education, Varela was involved with the Young Christian Students (YCS) program, which she described...

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George Ballis

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pp. 223-227

The firstborn child of Greek and German immigrants, he was raised in the small town of Faribault, Minnesota. After graduating high school in 1943, he rejected a football scholarship to the University of Minnesota and joined the Marine Corps. In boot camp, he tested high for math and science, was sent to radar school, and then was assigned to...

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Bob Fitch

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pp. 228-232

Bob Fitch was a student at the Pacific School of Religion in the mid-1960s when he began his career as an activist photographer. Trained to be a Protestant minister and expected to take a pulpit, he says, “Photojournalism seduced me. It is a compelling combination of visual aesthetics, potent communication, and storytelling. It is a way to support the organizing for social justice that is transforming our lives and future.”...

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Matt Herron

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pp. 233-238

Matt Herron has been a photojournalist since 1962, and his pictures have appeared in virtually every major picture magazine in the world. Based in Mississippi in the early 1960s, he covered the civil rights struggle for Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as providing pictures for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1964 he founded and...

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Bob Fletcher

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pp. 239-240

Bob Fletcher became interested in photography while an undergraduate at Fisk University. He had always been drawn to the arts, but when his parents gave him a subscription to Norman Cousins’s Saturday Review of Literature, which featured the work of contemporary photographers like Gordon Parks and W. Eugene Smith and the images of the Farm Security Administration, he decided to try it himself....

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David Prince

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pp. 241-242

David Prince was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1942 and grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where his father worked as a microbotanist for the developing national space program. Prince “turned to photography” in high school as a way to communicate and stay engaged in his classes. Upon graduating in 1960, he enrolled in Ohio University, the only four-year program in the U.S. granting degrees in photojournalism. He studied with the same...

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Bob Adelman

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pp. 243-244

A child of Jewish immigrants, Bob Adelman was born on October 30, 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in nearby Rockaway. His father, an amateur photographer, taught him how to use a darkroom and first piqued his interest in photography. “My father was a disciplined craftsman,” Adelman said. “I learned precision from him. But all photographers originally get hooked on the magic—the...

Recommended Reading

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pp. 245-246


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pp. 247-251

E-ISBN-13: 9781617031724
E-ISBN-10: 1617031720
Print-ISBN-13: 9781617031717
Print-ISBN-10: 1617031712

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (U.S.) -- History.
  • Political activists -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Photographers -- Political activity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Southern States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century -- Pictorial works.
  • Photographers -- United States -- Interviews.
  • Political activists -- United States -- Interviews.
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