Thursday, March 02, 2006

Birmingham: new takes on an old story

"Keep. Do not sell," said the label on the box tucked away in a closet at the Birmingham News. The box of thousands of negatives from the civil rights era was found more than a year ago by Alexander Cohn, a photo intern at the paper. With the paper's cooperation, he tracked down dozens of the photographs' subjects and eyewitnesses to the events, as well as a few of the photographers themselves, in order to build a record around this remarkable find. Thirty of the photos were published this past Sunday in the News' print edition, with many more published online. (Note: registration required, but well worth it.)

Listen to John Lewis narrate the 1961 Freedom Rides.

A picture of a 1956 Birmingham City Council meeting at which integrating the buses is discussed is especially revealing. The motto on the wall says, "Cities are what men make them." The rows of seats are filled with white people hiding behind newspapers, lowering their heads--anything to avoid being caught on camera.

Embarrassment, in fact, is what kept most of these pictures from the light of day. From this week's Washington Post report:

"The editors thought if you didn't publish it, much of this would go away," said Ed Jones, 81, a photographer at the newspaper from 1942 to 1987. "Associated Press kept on wanting pictures, and the News would be slow on letting them have them, so they flooded the town with photographers. The AP started sending pictures all over, and it mushroomed."

Robert Adams, 84, a photographer who joined the newspaper in 1940 and retired in 1985, said, "I think the News as an institution did not try to inflame the situation by use of photographs or stories."

They didn't print the embarrassing pictures, but something kept them from throwing away the negatives. And so now, coming at us out of time, these pictures have a different impact: they suggest that even when we think we've heard all about what happened in Alabama forty or fifty years ago, there's still more to the story.

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