Captured moments in the struggle for civil rights

February 17, 1991|By Martin C. Evans | Martin C. Evans,Mr. Evans is a reporter for The Sun.



Foreword by Andrew Young.

Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

208 pages; 180 photographs.

$35; $24.95 paperback.

One day in 1957, a white rookie photojournalist for a small Alabama newspaper named Charles Moore was on his way into a rural black church to cover a meeting of the fledgling Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

As he did, a white man man approached, stuck a gun in his face and said: "You don't really want to do that."

Until photographers like Mr. Moore began recording the civil rights movement, most Americans had little sympathy for the plight of blacks trapped by their birthright in a destiny of segregated oppression.

Outside the glare of public scrutiny, brutal sheriffs, Ku Klux Klan terrorists, lynch mobs and sadistic jailers could work their intimidation against a friendless minority.

Fortunately, Mr. Moore overcame fears for his own safety and went on to record some of the most gripping photographs of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement.

For example, there is a 1958 photograph of a then-unknown young preacher named Martin Luther King being roughed up in a Montgomery, Ala., police station as his wife looked on in shock. In another photograph, taken in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Bull Connor's police dogs tear at a man's trousers, as he stands with his hands raised.

It can be said Mr. Moore's photographs both recorded history and helped change it.

The photographs, published in the weekly picture magazine Life and seen by millions of people around the world, helped mobilize liberal whites and Northern blacks to join the civil rights movement.

Still photographs are capable of a dimension of documentary power that is dissipated in film and video, which do not allow a viewer to linger in examining a fleeting gesture, a grimace full of rage, an icy stare, an evocative pose.

Henri Cartier-Bresson articulated that basis of power still photography has when he spoke of the decisive moment, that point in a complex continuum at which a visual idea is most pure.

That power is used effectively in many of Mr. Moore's photographs. In one, a middle-aged black woman tries to ward off the blows of a club-wielding white man who stalks her along a street not far from the state Capitol in Montgomery. A crowd of whites watches impassively.

Although the photo was taken more than 30 years ago, her frozen gestures reflect the nightmarish vulnerability that blacks had to deal with in pressing toward freedom. Her hands still reach to protect her head, her body still braces for the blow. Her purse lies scattered at her feet, a white glove, pure and feminine, about to be crushed under her attacker's foot.

Mr. Moore's own personal history provides a poignant backdrop to this fine work.

The son of a Southern Baptist minister who often preached before black congregations, he learned segregation as a simple fact of life, one perhaps no less reasonable than men's and women's restrooms. But his contact with black church traditions sowed the seeds of an important empathy, an empathy that is reflected again and again in Mr. Moore's photographs of the civil rights movement.

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