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Civil Rights And The Power Of The Image
Civil Rights and the Power of the Image
The battle for the civil rights of African Americans after the end of the Civil War has been a very tenacious and slow moving slog. The legislation and actions of northern Republicans during the Reconstruction period gave Black Americans all of the rights that White Americans had.
This ended after the Presidential election of 1876 by way of a horrible political "deal with the devil". Northern Republicans, weary from war and occupation, agreed to withdraw troops from the South who were enforcing the new Reconstruction laws. In turn, the Republicans were allowed to have their Presidential candidate Rutherford Hayes be voted on as the winner of that contest in the disputed Electoral College vote. Most of the civil rights for southern Blacks were soon systematically stripped from them.
This continued and intensified right up to the 1950's. The American gaze had been from this tyranny and they were for the most part quite happy to go on with their lives and ignore this situation. Rumors of lynchings and other atrocities were rampant but they remained generally "out of sight, out of mind" for the vast majority of the American public.
Black soldiers fought gallantly in both World Wars I and II but were forced to return to a hostile and segregated South that vilified them. What could change this? A grieving mother's decision to hold an open casket funeral for her son sparked this initial change.
Emmett Till was lynched and brutally murdered in Mississippi. His mother Mamie decided that she wanted the whole world to see the horrible results these cowardly killers had wrought upon her son. Her courage to do this helped launch the Civil Rights movement.
I have been recalling this seminal event over the past few months. We were all witnessing several cell phone photos and videos chronicling some modern day violent acts being perpetrated upon Black men by various police officers in a few cities around the United States. This crystallized in my mind what has always been necessary to address our civil rights ills throughout this period as well as in the present. The American consciousness needs, especially in modern times, stark visual images to prod them to demand changes.
I plan to illustrate in this Hub the arc of the Civil Rights movement and how it was created and fueled by the power of the image. The effort will begin with the Emmett Till photos and then move on to the television footage of the movement through the 1960's. I will highlight this era by way of the Selma, Alabama march across the Edmond Pettis bridge.
Then I will show how police brutality against African American males has been finally and permanently exposed by the power of the cell phone. Finally I will tie it all together and show how the power of the image is so powerful and positive for the Civil Rights movement throughout our country.
Segregation as well as lynchings of Black men in the South started soon after the Reconstruction period ended in 1876. These conditions and incidents were open rumors within the U.S. but it was also easily set aside within the minds of most citizens outside of the South. This was due to the lack of hard evidence and lack of any real impact upon their own lives.
Most citizens of the South, both Black and White, had visual knowledge of these conditions and atrocities. White Southerners had no problems with these new conditions while Blacks were too afraid to speak out against them.
The rest of America went about their lives in ignorant bliss of this situation. That was a Southern problem for Southerners to deal with. No one had the stomach to address racial problems this soon after the finish of the devastating Civil War. This condition of segregation and brutality became firmly entrenched in Southern society far into the Twentieth Century.
The two World Wars, especially the second, exposed everyone to the same responsibilities and dangers of war. Both White and Black Americans as well as Northern and Southern troops fought admirably. Social conditions changed little when the Black troops returned to their southern homes but minds had been changed as to their attributes due their brave and heroic war contributions.
What could spark the change that the wars had planted the seeds for? That change came from a very brave and very angry woman named Mamie Till Bradley. Her son Emmett was lynched and beaten beyond recognition after flirting with a local white woman in Mississippi during a family visit. His lifeless corpse was more reminiscent of "The Elephant Man" than a teenage boy after this murder.
Mamie was determined that the American republic see what a horrible beating had been inflicted upon her son. In this way the extreme Southern hate and racism was exposed. She insisted that he be viewed in an open casket for all the world to see. Black newspapers published photos of his body which were soon picked up by the national media.
Everyone in the United States was now exposed to this horror and most Americans were shocked and appalled. These images opened the minds of most people who saw them and primed them for acceptance of action.
The simple and stark photographs of Emmett Till's beaten body in 1955 set the stage for the Civil Rights movement. The nascent television industry had the potential power to bring this horrible institutionalized racism into the homes of all Americans and move them even further into action.
Television's power slowly began to grow in portraying the movement's message beginning with the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955-1956. Rosa Parks rose to fame during this time by heroically refusing to move to the back of a bus and subsequently being arrested. Television aired these scenes and did so from this point forward.
The desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, the Greensboro sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the integration of the universities of the South, the 1963 March on Washington, and the many voter registration drives were shown on television during many evenings. All of these events had a cumulative effect and helped to crystallize the movement in the minds of the American people.
I believe that none had the visual effect that the Selma, Alabama march of 1965 had. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the rest of the Civil Rights leadership had already learned how television images could highlight racial injustices. President Lyndon Johnson knew this even better. He had already engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act a year earlier and he was now facing another stiff legislative task with the proposed Voting Rights Act.
Civil rights activists planned these marches from Selma to the state capitol of Montgomery in an effort to promote the pending Voting Rights Act. They also knew that they could count on probable heinous acts against them by angry White southerners which would highlight their plight.
On March 7, 1965 a march across the Edmund Pettus bridge towards Montgomery was led by John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Reverend Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The county sheriff Jim Clark had issued an order for all people to desist from carrying out this march.
The marchers went forward and were beaten badly by state troopers and other deputized men hired by Clark. The future Congressman John Lewis suffered a fractured skull, Amelio Boynton was beaten unconscious, and seventeen other marchers were hospitalized. All of this was captured by television cameras and broadcast across the United States. This event became known as "Bloody Sunday". The passage of the Voting Rights Act, once in doubt, was passed into law a short while after.
We now come to present day affairs regarding race relations in this country. The conditions for African Americans in the South and throughout the U.S. have improved greatly due to these victories by the Civil Rights movement from earlier decades.
Unfortunately not all prejudices have been placed in the past. This especially holds true for many police officers in communities throughout the United States. It is true that the percentages of arrests and incarcerations for Black males over the past thirty years has been much higher than the rest of the population. Why is this?
Many argue that it is simply because young Black males commit most of the crimes in our society. Is this the whole truth? The answer is more ambiguous than this simple answer due to some other mitigating factors.
One is that crime is often more predominant in poorer communities due to the need for more cash to simply pay for common needs. African Americans have continued to have a larger part of their population remaining below the poverty line or near it compared to the rest of the American public.
A second and probably the more significant reason is the general misconceptions and prejudices of society against Blacks, especially young males, which are reflected in the actions of their police forces. Young African American males are perceived by much of American society as the biggest purveyor of crime in the United States.
This is reflected in the "stop and frisk" programs such as the one that was used by the New York City police department. These programs have targeted Black males at rates that are outrageously out of balance with the true crime rates. Racial profiling programs are rampant throughout the country with similar results. These programs and the attitudes that created them have led to the predictable large incidences of police brutality and questionable shootings against Black males.
What could remedy this situation? Changed policing policies and new training programs are obvious solutions but they take a long time to develop. The answer that is currently being used by the public is by way of the cell phone camera. The photos and videos that we have seen on television from this relatively new technology have highlighted many examples of police brutality.
These images have energized the African American community and compelled them into action via demonstrations and other forms of civil protest. These images have also highlighted this problem to White America who were for the most part oblivious or indifferent to this problem.
This very much hearkens back to Emmett Till's mother's decision to open up his coffin to public view. It uncovered and vividly portrays a problem to White America that they have either been ignorant of or have simply chosen to ignore. Either way, it is now front and center for the American public to see and now must be dealt with.
How are these images from different eras intertwined? What do they mean for the Civil Rights movement and justice in the United States? The fight for civil rights in America has always involved an appeal to the majority for fairness, equality, and humane treatment for the African American community as well as all minority groups.
These appeals have most often fell upon apathetic ears. Most people are quite humane but if actions are not affecting their busy lives they will simply move their attentions on to more pertinent issues in relation to their lives. The message becomes much more real if you can depict brutal actions against a people vividly with violent images.
The Emmett Till photos fueled the nascent Civil Rights movement. The Selma police actions shown on television forced critical voting changes in Congress that enabled the Voting Rights Act to be passed.
The current video footages of several police shootings and overly zealous apprehensions have given the Civil Rights movement its newest impetus to fight one of its longest and most festering issues. They are now able to give the rest of America the images of events that they have been experiencing for many years.
Many police forces target young Black males without any evidence or probable cause, Then they react with violence when these same males protest or decide to flee. These abuses and any police malfeasance are now often documented by either cell phone video or security camera footage that are now all over public areas.
The Civil Rights community and citizens all around the nation have witnessed the efficacy of these images. This has spurred the call for dash cams in police cars as well as body cameras for all police officers.
The bottom line is that images matter and are very powerful. This can be for the positive and for the negative. The current battle over removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse is just the latest example of a negative symbol that spurs hatred.
Just today, July 9, 2015, the South Carolina House voted to remove the flag. This clears the way for Governor Nikki Haley to sign the bill today at 4 P.M. It will be removed tomorrow at 10 A.M. and placed in a Confederate museum.
All of this was prompted by the June 17, 2015 mass shooting and murder of nine Black parishioners of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by Dylann Roof. Mr. Roof was revealed to have a very strong love for White Supremacy groups and literature as well as Confederate symbols such as the Confederate flag. He confessed to wanting to start a race war over his killings.
This horrible incident and the subsequent reactions show how images have great powers. This flag was one of many things that helped spur this deranged man to murder. The resulting forgiveness for this man by the congregation and the beautiful and loving funeral, which was televised, prompted the political leaders of South Carolina to once and for all remove this symbol of hate from the statehouse.
My sincere hope is that this incident as well as all the other negative police incidents will finally spur change in people's minds all around our country in regards to race relations. We are all equal human beings who simply have different backgrounds and lives. Getting to truly know these similarities and differences is key to destroying the still hidden distrust there is between the races and other groups in our society.
I welcome this new world where we all are open to having our actions and words subject to public documentation. No more hiding our actions. Maybe now all of our police officers will treat all citizens equally. Maybe we also will soon treat all of our fellow citizens equally and we will see images of people of different races and ethnicities coming together and celebrating. I certainly hope and pray it does. I think we all should. That would be the ultimate power of the image.