Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement by Danny Lyon
Above Selma, 7 October 1963. (©Danny Lyon/Courtesy of Twin Palms).
‘The southern United States were in turmoil,’ writes Julian Bond in his foreword to Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, following the landmark decision in the 1954 legal battle, Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students and denying black children equal education opportunities were unconstitutional, civil unrest grew steadily, and in 1955 ‘a nonviolent army’ arose in Montgomery, Alabama, which challenged the very ‘morality’ of segregation, this ‘nonviolent army’ lead to the formation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.
In 1962, a young New Yorker Danny Lyon, then a student studying History at the University of Chicago, joined the SNCC, a self-taught photographer, he was, says Bond, a founder of the SNCC whilst a student at Morehouse College, Atlanta, ‘as idealistic as the rest of us.’
The SNCC was born out of the 1960 sit-in demonstrations, and the SNCC’s idea of photography was functional, ‘it was to provide pictures for SNCC’s propaganda and for press releases to those papers that would print them, and it was used to illustrate fund-raising brochures and top document the movement. Danny Lyon took this function and made art.’
As we have seen with many of Lyon’s projects, he approaches his stories with an unwaivering commitment, ‘My final year at the University of Chicago was divided between being a student and making trips back to the South,’ says Lyon, who would spend two years working with the SNCC.
Lyon was asked to go to Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 to photograph Bob Mosses, ‘When the DC-8 landed in Jackson, I might as well been stepping off in Johannesburg. Everything frightened me,’ he says, ‘I was supposed to take a colored cab into a colored neighborhood, but it was illegal for black drivers to carry white passengers. And needless to say, I couldn’t ask a white driver to take me to look for civil rights workers. Eventually I persuaded some brave black driver to take me to the address I had been given for the Freedom House.’
By June 1963, Lyon had completed his college courses, and the demonstrations that broke out in Birmingham, Alabama, the previous month, and the film footage and photographs of high school students being ‘knocked around’ by high-pressure water hoses had proved irresistible to the press. ‘Two-and-a-half years after it had begun in earnest, the civil rights movement was finally discovered by the American media,’ says Lyon, ‘It was front-page story and would remain so until displaced by Vietnam.’
Reflecting upon Lyon’s photographs, Bond says, ‘They give today’s audience a view lacking in scholarly accounts of the movement. Here are the faces and the bodies caught in action and emotion. Here is a true picture — not just photographs — of the movement and its promise. That promise failed. Danny Lyon’s work is pictures both of what was and of what might have been.’
Memories of the Southern Civil Rights Movement is published by Twin Palms.
Further reading Danny Lyon, pioneer of ‘New Journalism.’