When Photo Was King

Images from the Deep South take viewers on a walk through the civil rights era

Every so often, America coughs up a hairball like Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker to remind itself of how far it has traveled from its past. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the civil rights movement was still being called a "struggle," a white fool calling a black man a "fat monkey," as Rocker recently did, hardly would have been news or cause for the good ol' boys running major league baseball to prescribe a psychiatric exam. Such talk, usually sprinkled with references to "niggers," was common not just in white-gloved living rooms of Rocker's South, but throughout the nation and in segregationist-dominated governor's mansions, statehouses and county courtrooms.

A hint of that appears in photojournalist Dan Budnik's 1965 portrait of Selma, Alabama, Sheriff James Clark -- one of about two dozen civil rights photographs by Budnik in an exhibition that opens Saturday, January 15, at Tempe's public library.

On Clark's lapel is a small white button that says "Never" -- the white establishment's reply to the day's civil rights choruses of "We Shall Overcome." It meant that Clark and his ilk would never accept the equality of blacks, would never extend to them the constitutional protections of law that whites enjoyed, and would never let them vote.

Selma's Sheriff James Clark at the start of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march.
Selma's Sheriff James Clark at the start of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march.
A civil rights marcher on his way to Montgomery.
A civil rights marcher on his way to Montgomery.

Several weeks before Budnik made this picture, Clark had showed how far he was willing to go to enforce the word. With a contingent of state troopers and a mounted posse wielding bullwhips, clubs and tear gas, he attacked the ranks of peaceful civil rights marchers at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. The confrontation, which became known as "Black" or "Bloody Sunday," drove the issue of voting rights deep into the American conscience. A week later, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress about the need to pass a voting rights act. Within two weeks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a contingent of about 300 marchers were walking, with the protection of federal troops and marshals, the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery -- an event that remains one of the watersheds of the civil rights movement.

Budnik was not in Selma for "Bloody Sunday." But he began photographing the tumultuous fallout from it shortly afterward. None of the photographs in this show depicts the violence that took the lives of three civil rights workers that month. Yet they manage to encapsulate the queer mix of tension, tragedy and elation of the days leading up to the completion of the march.

These and other still images of the day represented the last hurrah of the kind of work that made magazines like Life and Look such American staples. The incident at the Pettus bridge exemplified why. The scenes of gas-masked troopers beating demonstrators were broadcast on that evening's televised news, hours before they appeared in the nation's newspapers, and weeks before they hit the magazines.

Still, Budnik's images from the weeks that followed reveal the compelling nature of what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once coined "the decisive moment" -- that photographic instant when intellect and intuition merge into a singular picture and point of view.

As with all photojournalism, the intriguing aspect of these works is their bias. Whether one's considering the poignant image of a lone figure carrying an American flag down the road during the Selma to Montgomery march or the silhouette of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, right arm thrust heavenward, at the pulpit of Selma's Brown Chapel -- an image that became a figure in a Jacob Lawrence painting -- Budnik's pictures were meant to persuade viewers not simply to look, but to feel and ultimately to act.

Like other photojournalists of the day, he used the camera not just as a visual tool, but as a social one.

"I suppose I went into freelance photography because it sort of represented the freedom I thought would be diminishing," he says. "And it was at a time when you could still be an altruistic zealot and make a difference."

Budnik had gone to Alabama early in March 1965 as a freelancer for Life magazine, with the idea of penetrating the world of white segregationists. "I had a grandiose plan of demystifying the Ku Klux Klan -- putting a human face on the savagery," he says.

Budnik had covered the 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C., where he snapped the ruminative profile of King that's in the exhibition -- a picture made shortly after his "I have a dream" speech.

But this was his first effort in the South to cover the civil rights struggle. "Basically, I told the editors, 'Let me go down on my own nickel. If I'm successful, then let's do something.'"

He had gone down to Selma the week before "Bloody Sunday" and lucked into an introduction to the late governor George Wallace. "Wallace immediately used me in front of the Daughters of the Confederacy," Budnik recalls. "He said we have an enemy in our midst."

Afterward, says Budnik, the governor said: "I hope you didn't mind me using you in that way."

"I said, 'Governor Wallace, you owe me one.'"

Budnik told Wallace that Life was willing to cover the segregationist world. "I can't be held accountable for what Life will write about you," he told him. "It's their magazine. But I'll stand 100 percent behind my photographs."

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