The Life Magazine Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore 1958-1965

By Kaplan, John | Journalism History, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Life Magazine Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore 1958-1965


Kaplan, John, Journalism History


On September 3, 1958, Charles Moore, a young photographer for the Montgomery Advertiser,

witnessed an argument between the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and two policeman on the steps of the City Recorders' Court. Moore's good fortune that day was in stark contrast with King's. Moore was the only member of the media to witness King's subsequent arrest, and his picture of the local minister being manhandled during the police booking became one of the most significant photographs of the civil rights movement.' King was taken to the back of the jail where he was frisked, roughed-up, and tossed into a cell.2

When Life picked up the picture from the Associated Press wire on September 15, it would be the first of Moore's celebrated civil rights photos to be published in the magazine. By 1965, the photographer would grow weary of years of violence--of hatred, street battles and the searing taste of tear gas-having witnessed many of the most significant events of the era. After documenting the fighting surrounding James Meredith's bloody admission to the University of Mississippi, the dogs being turned on protesters in Birmingham, and the savagery of the civil rights march at Selma, Moore booked an around-the-world ticket on Pan Am in 1965 and would not return home for eight months.3

The impact of Charles Moore's civil rights photography endures more than forty years after Life first published his dramatic work. His photographs are among the most significant of the period and his coverage of the 1963 Birmingham riots would do far more than help publicize King's efforts; they would also lead to national outrage culminating in President Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By that time, Moore's Life photos were given credit for helping to influence the legislation's passage.4

Through use of first-person anecdotal interviews, an overview of Life letters-to-the-editor, and earlier reviews of Moore's work, this article demonstrates the photographer's contribution to facilitating the social change brought about by the American civil rights movement. It recounts how Moore gained exclusive access to cover events that were not only historically significant but also harrowing to cover. It also documents the personal recollections of journalists and civil rights movement participants who witnessed Moore's coverage. Additionally, the review of Life letters-to-the-editor further amplifies the photographer's impact on American history, not only on a societal level but also on an individual level through the submissions of readers who felt compelled to comment on Charles Moore's dramatic work.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the weekly Life was the nation's most influential media outlet, reaching more citizens than any television program and read by more than half the adult population of the United States.5 Through the work of Moore and other photographers such as Flip Schulke and Gordon Parks, along with King's savvy in spreading his message throughout the media, Life is credited with giving national prominence to what had until the mid-1950s been a regional story.6

Although many letters to the editor protested Life's socalled liberal bias in covering civil rights, the magazine also was criticized for its conservatism.7 When it published eleven pages of Moore's graphic photos of rioting in Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963, it described the movement as a "crusade" and used sympathetic headlines such as "The Dogs' Attack is Negroes' Reward." However, the same article criticized King's non-violent but provocative actions.

The pictures on these eleven pages are frightening. They are frightening because of the brutal methods being used by white policemen in Birmingham, Ala. against Negro demonstrators. They are frightening because the Negro strategy of "nonviolent direct action" invites that very brutalityand welcomes it as a way to promote the Negroes' cause, which, under the law, is right. …

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