Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle

Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle

Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle

Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare: Photography and the African American Freedom Struggle

Synopsis

In Imprisoned in a Luminous Glare, Leigh Raiford argues that over the past one hundred years activists in the black freedom struggle have used photographic imagery both to gain political recognition and to develop a different visual vocabulary about black lives. Raiford analyzes why activists chose photography over other media, explores the doubts some individuals had about the strategies, and shows how photography became an increasingly effective, if complex, tool in representing black political interests.

Offering readings of the use of photography in the antilynching movement, the civil rights movement, and the black power movement, Raiford focuses on key transformations in technology, society, and politics to understand the evolution of photography's deployment in capturing white oppression, black resistance, and African American life. By putting photography at the center of the long African American freedom struggle, Raiford also explores how the recirculation of these indelible images in political campaigns and art exhibits both adds to and complicates our memory of the events.

Excerpt

For nearly two weeks in early May of 1963, national and international audiences rose each morning to images of violence, confrontation, and resistance splashed across the front pages of their major newspapers. Blackand-white photographs paraded daily through the New York Times and the Washington Post depicted white police officers in Birmingham, Alabama, wielding high-powered fire hoses and training police dogs on nonviolent black and often very young protesters (figures i.1, i.2). Organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), “Project C” (for “confrontation”) brought center stage the publicly unacknowledged terror, violence, and daily inequities African Americans had long suffered at the hands of white southerners. Through forced confrontations between blacks and whites, between constitutional right and segregationist practice, between the genteel, progressive image of the New South and the dehumanizing Old South reality, the thousands of men, women, and children who participated in Project C confronted a watching world with the contradictions of contemporary southern race relations. They vividly and visually challenged an entire economic and social regime of power.

A year later, SCLC’s leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recognized the importance of such vivid imagery in galvanizing support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King wrote of the campaign in his book Why We Can’t Wait, “The brutality with which officials would have quelled the black individual became impotent when it could not be pursued with stealth and remain unobserved. It was caught—as a fugitive from a penitentiary is often caught— in gigantic circling spotlights. It was imprisoned in a luminous glare revealing the naked truth to the whole world.” For King, the visual media proved a crucial component in capturing “fugitive” brutality, holding it still for scrutiny and transmitting this “naked truth” to watching and judging audiences. King praises photography and film for their work of exposure, revealing through mechanical reproduction facts that had remained hidden and therefore difficult to prove. By the time King penned Why We Can’t Wait, he had witnessed, deployed, and been the subject of photographs of movement events both spectacular and quotidian. He believed deeply in their power to image African Americans as U.S. citizens who, like their white counterparts, were deserving of equal treatment. Images of the broken body . . .

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