For anyone growing up within the reach of newspapers or television during the middle of the 20th century, the struggle for African-American civil rights marked a defining moment. As both a historical and a media event it was something new. There were, of course, atrocities and human tragedies going on all over the world at the time, but the turmoil in central Africa, the brutality of life in southern Africa or Stalin's empire were inaccessible and so more or less invisible. For the news media, however, the civil- rights struggle was there, on their doorsteps. It was the moment when the press began to perfect a style and a method of telling stories that would be a precursor to 24-hour news. A never-ending story, once it had begun, there was no way of switching it off or turning away.
It was a story that also brought us extraordinary personalities: heroes and saints, along with a gallery of villains. And then there was the line- up of anonymous white faces, twisted with anger and hatred, flickering into their moment in history and out again.
The storylines too were microcosmic epics of life and death. One day a mob of yelling whites is besieging a church in Alabama in which Martin Luther King Jnr is trapped; Jack Kennedy meanwhile agonises over whether sending in the troops will cost him votes. Another day black children arrive to attend a segregated school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and are attended by a chorus of baying whites. This was a drama which seemed to be running for years, every day providing us with a new twist and building into a narrative marked by glorious passion and terrible tragedy. And, running through it all, a bright gleam of hope, not just for something better, but for the last vestiges of belief in the American Dream.
Freedom is a new book that tells the story of the African- American struggle for civil rights in the 19th and 20th centuries. It contains an admirably concise account of its history by the African-American scholars Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, but it is the book's 550 photographs that give the story its point and its meaning.
The kernel of the book is the period between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s, when the struggle came to a climax, finally settling outstanding constitutional issues between South and North, realigning the American map of industrial rights and altering the prospects and reach of African- Americans in their own society.
Over the past 50 years I've seen hundreds, maybe thousands of pictures which tell and retell the same events, but they haven't lost their power to move; and studying so many in just one or two sittings, while following the chronology laid out by text, magnifies their impact. Part of the reason is to do with the sense, which the pictures establish, of just how long the beatings, the murders, the expropriation of black property went on - from the end of the Civil War to well past the mid-point of the next century, close on 100 years. And all this following the long trauma of slavery.
Part of it is to do with seeing the story's events and personalities repeating themselves over and over again - the same gleam of fanaticism in the eyes of the rednecks on their way back from the lynching, the same pose of celebratory rage among the crowds surrounding a burning black body, the same bullying cops from Alabama to Chicago to LA. Confronting them we see a long line of obdurate black men and women: Sojourner Truth, Dubois, Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey, King, Stokeley Carmichael, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X. The repetition sets up a sort of network of imagery that almost persuades you that each new picture is familiar, part of your own life, but there is more to it.
Freedom begins with images of slavery - black slaves working in the fields, a convention of escaped slaves, a black man with his back covered by the raised scars of vicious and …