Bob Adelman's Civil Rights Photos at Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale
It's been only 50 years since the civil rights movement unfolded in this country. Some blacks living today were guaranteed the right to vote only partway through their lifetimes.
The Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale commemorates this not-long-ago era with "The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography," which opened January 19. Adelman, now an 83-year-old Miami Beach resident, took some of the most iconic photos from this time, including the image of Martin Luther King Jr. during his "I Have a Dream" speech that was used on the cover of Life magazine.
Adelman grew up in Long Island with a self-proclaimed identity complex. He didn't know what he wanted to do, but he had a strong passion for social justice. He obtained a B.A. at Rutgers and took on law studies at Harvard, then philosophy at Columbia. Photography wasn't exactly an obvious career pursuit.
"I had been working on my doctoral thesis, and I resolved my philosophical meaning of life," Adelman recalls. "And this led me from talking and thinking to doing and making, so that led me to photography intuitively."
At first, it was a mere hobby he picked up from his father. Adelman took only one photography course; he trained through apprenticeships. In the early 1960s, he began volunteering for a civil rights organization, Congress of Racial Equality. This gave him access to King, who was famous for befriending photographers, as he wanted to get the word out on the horrific truth of the treatment of blacks.
"I did some pictures of the women's movement," Adelman says. "I did the first gay pride parades, pictures of antiwar movements. The abortion issue. I did pictures of the mistreatment of the mentally retarded. But I also shot pictures of artists in New York like Andy Warhol." His work ran in Esquire, Life, Time, New York Times Magazine, and Paris Match.
"At the time, which was the late '50s, early '60s, the country was very frozen in a way that it is like now," Adelman says. "No president had said that segregation was wrong for 100 years. It was an organized system of terror. People who confronted it or stepped outside its bounds were punished. They lost their job. They had to move. There was a whole system in the South — by the way, in the North, it wasn't so different. If a black family moved into a white neighborhood, their house could be burnt down."
Peter Boswell, the show's contractual curator, says, "Bob's got several key images" — one, for example, a well-known photograph of a group of blacks and police water-hosing them during nonviolent protests and subsequent police brutality in Birmingham, Alabama, in spring 1963. "By huddling together, they figured out that they could withstand the blast of water. The water had enough force to tear the bark off trees. It captures both the brutality that was being used and the whole idea of strength and unity of people getting together." Adelman had to take this shot while hiding behind a tree. To amplify the action that took place, the museum has blown up Adelman's contact sheet, showing events unfolding frame by frame.
Adelman calls the Birmingham protests "the Gettysburg of the civil rights movement." Boswell explains: "The energy was tremendous. What happened was a lot of young blacks — high-school-, elementary-school-aged — weren't allowed to participate in these protests. Eventually they were allowed, and thus 1,000 entered the demonstrations overnight. These youngsters got arrested. Filled up the jails. And that's when the police brought out the dogs and hoses."
Adelman's images captured that violence on children. It was a huge turning point, and it led President Kennedy to call for a civil rights bill in his speech of June 1963. Then "black leaders called for a March on Washington that basically put pressure on Congress to pass this bill," Boswell says. In August, four months after the Birmingham demonstration, 300,000 people showed up in D.C., where King gave his most famous speech. Kennedy died that November, but Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race and gender, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits discrimination in voting.
"The situation of blacks was so unjust and so unfair, and that troubled me so deeply," Adelman says. "I came from a family that was very idealistic. You couldn't live in America without hearing about lynching. But nobody was doing anything about it. Segregation was a violent system that terrorized our brothers and sisters."
The show consists of a video gallery showing footage of three films, plus nearly 160 images of Adelman's. These begin with scenes of black poverty in 1961 and end with pictures from King's funeral in 1968.
Pictures include people outside of segregated bathrooms and blacks swarming lunch counters of restaurants they weren't allowed in. Adelman says, "What fascinated me as I was working on this show is that there are all these everyday people — everyone has heard of Martin Luther King , but there are all these people that laid themselves on the line. It was the heroism of those everyday people that impressed me in the end. Many got arrested and beaten, allowing themselves to be abused and beaten — by doing that, it exposed the injustice of the system."
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