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Black and White, and Seen All Over

May 27, 2010 By:
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On the book jacket, a photo titled "I Am a Man," showing sanitation workers assembled outside Clayborn Temple, Memphis Tenn., photographed by Ernest C. Withers

I remember when Michael Arlen's book Living-Room War was published in 1969, and how the title resonated with our lives back then. Arlen was the television critic for The New Yorker, and his title and the majority of the pieces included in the work discussed how Vietnam was the first war the United States had ever fought whose daily reality was being delivered, through images, directly into our living rooms.

The media was not nearly as pervasive a force in the culture as it is today, but it was invasive enough. Part of Arlen's thesis was that television transmission was not only altering our sense of the conflict, for better or worse (to say nothing of our concept of reality), but might even change the course of public opinion about the war.

Portions of his thesis might be debatable these days, but the intrusive nature of TV, especially as it brought us news of the war and other major social issues, cannot be disputed. The dominance of the media -- newspapers, radios, photographs, and eventually, TV reports -- had begun to gather steam in the 1930s, with images of the Depression, and continued through the war years and well into the 1950s and '60s. A new book from Yale University Press, titled For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, reminds us though text and images just how powerfully photography affected the course of a major social movement that changed the history and the fabric of American life, all for the better.

The author, Maurice Berger, is senior research scholar at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, as well as senior fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics of Manhattan's New School. In addition to writing on art, television, film, law, and the politics and culture of race for a number of major newspapers and journals, he is the author of 10 books, including White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness, which was named as a finalist for the 2000 Horace Mann Bond Book Award of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

As the title of his new work makes clear, Berger has found an outlet for his numerous interests in the subject of how the dissemination of images in the 1950s and '60s had a salutary effect on the course of the civil-rights movement and its eventual legislative triumphs. Where the Vietnam war might have been the first that was televised directly into our homes, the civil-rights movement had entered there a good decade earlier in the form of newspaper and magazine photos, TV news reels and documentaries -- all of them doing a good deal to shake the consciences of vigilant white Americans, liberal and otherwise. The clear injustice of what was being presented shook the complacency of many a white Northerner, even possibly disturbing their once untroubled sleep.

These intrusions also managed to win over a number of young people to the cause, whose inchoate sense of politics may have been lying dormant just about then -- or might even have been opposed to any liberal sentiments whatsoever. There is little doubt that the truth of some of the most startling images coming from the American South gave them pause at the very least.

The author first considers the status quo in race relations at the dawn of the 20th century, then looks at how African-Americans countered those stereotypes with positive images until well into mid-century. He has a crucial chapter on the murder of Emmett Till, and how photos of his horrifyingly brutalized body lying in his casket galvanized blacks and whites, and began what we know of as the modern civil-rights movement. Berger then looks at how race was "broadcast" both in its reality in news casts, and in contemporary films and television shows.

The author explains how and why the image trumped words during this most crucial period in American history.

"Verbal language," writes Berger, "dependent on the point of view and biases of the speaker and subject to exaggeration, omission, and deceit, could be easily denied. ... To African-Americans, long subject to the capricious behavior and whims of white people, words offered little more than false promises and shattered dreams.

"Visual images -- certainly subject to manipulation but also direct and vivid optical records of the things and events they represent -- would come far closer to representing the 'Truth' that the great writer and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois believed was black people's most potent weapon against injustice. No image could act alone, of course. No image could, by itself, change the world, for every visual representation is dependent on context: the words, circumstances, distribution, and beliefs that endow pictures with greater levels of meaning and influence. In this sense, the leaders of the civil rights movement -- and their vigilant enemies -- were often exceptionally gifted image-makers. They understood, and took advantage of, the complex relationship between innovative technologies for representing the world and a society eager for new ways of seeing. The adage that 'a picture is worth a thousand words' was never more valid than in the battle for and against civil rights -- the innumerable efforts to prove, or disprove, the idea that racism was a scourge that imperiled both democracy and the future of America." 

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