The iconic imagery surrounding the civil rights movement, while problematic for some, is unquestionably powerful, especially for those of us who weren’t around to witness this important chapter in American history firsthand. These pictures not only made plain the gross inequality between races in our country; in many cases, they served as the much-needed public awareness catalyst needed to pass vita legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, we’ve rounded up a handful of important photographers from the era, along with some of their most iconic shots. Feel free to keep our list going in the comments!
Associated Press photographer Bill Hudson is perhaps best known for capturing this galvanizing image of Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama on May 3, 1963; a three column-spanning version of the shocking photo ran above the fold in The New York Times the following day.
Bob Adelman, Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, 1963. Gelatin silver print. © Bob Adelman
A close pal of both Andy Warhol and Samuel Becket, Bob Adelman studied his craft under famed Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch. A position as a photographer for the Congress of Racial Equality gave him access to some of the biggest names and events of the civil rights era. He described the frightening scene at Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, captured in the photo above, as so: “The police and firemen used a brute show of force to try to stop the ongoing demonstrations. It didn’t work on this day. Rather than fleeing, the protestors hung on to each other and were able to stand up to the full fury of the water, though not without casualties. I have never witnessed such cruelty. There was almost as much moisture behind the lens as in front.”
Bruce Davidson, Time of Change, 1962. © Bruce Davidson/Magnum Photos
Bruce Davidson chronicled the effects of the civil rights movement on the people of the north and south, creating an impressive body of work that earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the first ever photography grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Charles Moore, Arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King, 1958. ©Charles Moore/Blackstar/Eyevine
Known for documenting King’s rise as a civil rights leader, Charles Moore got his start as a photographer for the the Montgomery Advertiser and the Montgomery Journal, and would later to go on to shoot for Life magazine. The image above depicts King’s arrest for loitering in Montgomery in 1958; Moore was the only person on scene with a camera to document it.
Dan Budnik, March on Washington, 1963. © Dan Budnik 1999. The Menil Collection, Houston, gift of Adelaide de Menil Carpenter and Edmund Carpenter Photo: © Hester + Hardaway Photographers Fayetteville Texas
Famed photographer Dan Budnik, who shot images of everyone from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Henri Cartier-Bresson in his 25 years with Magnum, documented the Selma to Montgomery March in a photo essay for Life magazine, as well as the Youth March for Integrated Schools and the March on Washington. The image of King above was snapped just moments after he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial.
When a group of young women in rural Georgia were placed under lock and key after protesting segregation at the local library, photos like the one above, which was snapped through the bars by new journalism pioneer Danny Lyon, helped secure their release.
Ernest C. Withers courtesy Smithsonian Institution
Ernest Withers, nicknamed the Original Civil Rights Photographer, captured some of the most important moments of the movement on film — from King riding on one of the first desegregated buses in Montgomery to the murder trial of Emmett Till. He was also, apparently, telling the FBI everything that they wanted to know about various civil rights leaders in the Memphis community the whole time.
Gene Herrick, Mrs. King Kisses Rev. King after Boycott Guilty Verdict, March 22, 1956. Gelatin silver print, printed later. 9 x 13 inches. Courtesy of Stephen Kasher Gallery
This amazing candid 1956 shot of King and his wife was captured by Associated Press shutterbug Gene Herrick, who was also in Montgomery to document Rosa Parks’ arrest one month earlier. “I took pictures of both events, two of which have been highly publicized,” he has said. “The picture of Reverend King shows him being kissed on the cheek by his wife as they come down the courthouse steps after his release after his hearing, and the one of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted.”
Jack Thornell. James Meredith, wounded by a shotgun blast, sprawled on a highway near Hernando, Mississippi, June 6, 1966.
26-year-old Associated Press photographer Jack Thornell famously captured this Pulitzer Prize-winning image of James Meredith, the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi, after he was wounded by a sniper while leading a march to encourage African Americans to vote. When the attack happened, Thornell was sitting in hid car waiting for a photographer from Life to bring him a Coke; he took two rolls of pictures of Meredith, but never put down his camera to offer his wounded subject help.
James Karales, Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights in 1965, 1965. Photographic print. Located in the James Karales Collection, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University. Photograph © Estate of James Karales
James Karales, a staff photographer at Look magazine in the 1960s, documented the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. In his 2002 obit, The New York Times called the iconic photo above, “a pictorial anthem of the civil rights movement,” praising “the power and poetry that he packed into a seemingly casual picture.”