Paper Discovers Trove Of Unseen Civil Rights Photos
posted by Dan Filler
Today the Birmingham News published a treasure trove of photographs documenting the Civil Rights movement. These absolutely remarkable photos, featuring Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall (pictured at right in a group that included Constance Baker Motley), and other significant individuals and events from that era, can be accessed here. While some appeared at the time, many of these images have not been published previously. According to the account in today’s News, the photos were found accidentally:
[The discovery was] the result of research by Alexander Cohn, a 30-year-old former photo intern at The News. In November 2004, Cohn went through an equipment closet at the newspaper in search of a lens and saw a cardboard box full of negatives marked, “Keep. Do Not Sell.”
The accompanying article includes interesting interviews with News photographers and others discussing why many of these images never saw the light of day. One photographer recalled that “the editors thought if you didn’t publish it, much of this would go away.”
The News has changed over the years naturally. In 1988, it offered a tempered self-critique of its civil rights coverage saying: “The story of The Birmingham News’ coverage of race relations in the 1960s is once marked at times by mistakes and embarrassment but, in its larger outlines, by growing sensitivity and acceptance of change.” That remains a fair characterization of the broadsheet. The editorial board is iconoclastically conservative. It is anti-abortion and solidly Republican but unafraid to confront ideological inconsistency and social injustice. For example, the News recently reversed course on the death penalty, calling for its abolition. Why?
Because we have come to believe Alabama’s capital punishment system is broken. And because, first and foremost, this newspaper’s editorial board is committed to a culture of life. Put simply, supporting the death penalty is inconsistent with our convictions about the value of life, convictions that are evident in our editorial positions opposing abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia. We believe all life is sacred. And in embracing a culture of life, we cannot make distinctions between those we deem “innocents” and those flawed humans who populate Death Row.
In a similar vein, the editors have strongly supported tax initiatives designed to make Alabama’s tax system more progressive. (The centerpiece of these efforts, a referendum supported by Republican Governor Bob Riley, and energized in large part by my colleague Susan Hamill’s article, An Argument For Tax Reform Based on Judeo-Christian Ethics, was soundly rejected by voters.) They have also stepped forward as supporters of disability rights.
I understand the deep suspicions some continue to harbor towards the News. I have no doubt that the paper was complicit in the awful treatment of African-Americans in Birmingham. Still, reading the paper day in and day out, I’m a bit more optimistic. These photos may have been found accidentally, but the continued growth of the Birmingham News seems quite intentional.