February is Black History Month, a time for celebration of the triumphs of black heritage and reflection on the plights faced by many black people throughout the course of American history. Both of those sentiments played a large role in the civil rights movement, which in turn paved the way for the rightful equality and opportunity America continues to strive for today.
The tragedies that created the necessity for the civil rights movement, the incredible feats accomplished and atrocities committed during the civil rights movement, and the triumphs of a movement that forced change at the highest levels of government are, in many cases, well-documented via photography.
When I set out to write this post, the plethora of images available online led me to believe that relating the story of civil rights through images would be easy; this sentiment proved to be wrong. I found it difficult to choose which images were, indeed, the most powerful. President Johnson shaking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hand and presenting him with a pen used to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964? The incredible turnout as Dr. King spoke during the march on Washington, D.C.? Or Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis being mercilessly beaten by state trooper during the right to vote march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965?
In the end, I decided that a few images alone cannot adequately convey the reasons for, the struggles of, or the achievements by the civil rights movement. No, one must take the time to peruse a whole host of images to truly understand its significance. Prejudice is no stranger to the United States, not even in progressive America, but 2012 is definitely a far cry from 1965, and those who cannot remember its tumultuous times cannot understand it without assistance.
What does all of this have to do with design, marketing and printing? Plenty. My search for images led to a photographer named Charles Moore. Moore was working for a newspaper in Montgomery, Alabama, when he witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s arrest. Being the only photographer on hand, he captured the arrest with his camera, from the court steps to the police department, where he took a famous photo of a unresisting King being sprawled across the desk by officers.
It was Moore’s introduction to the civil rights movement, and he went on to capture some of its most powerful images. Moore’s ability to be in the right place at the right time to put history on film is his artwork; it is his design. His photos hit the wire and were picked up by major newspapers and magazines, showing the world what it didn’t want to know or see. The printing of those photos helped change the course of history, because, in a very real sense, they marketed the need for change.
I’ve embedded a video in which Charles Moore discusses his photography during the civil rights movement. In the video you will see many of the most powerful photos of the movement, and you will also get to hear Moore add context to them with his narration. It’s a history lesson no American should miss.
Here are two powerful civil rights movement photo galleries:
Images used in this post are from the Library of Congress.