Bob Adelman Reflects on the Civil Rights Movement
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Bob Adelman is the iconic photographer behind many of the thought-provoking, historical photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. A photographer and protest marcher, he spent a considerable amount of time fighting for justice and equal rights. His images capture groundbreaking moments, such as student sit-ins, Freedom Riders, the March on Washington and other significant events in Black history. Adelman’s picture of Martin Luther King’s powerful “I Have A Dream” speech is perhaps the most famous of his memorable images.
Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Adelman’s photographs are a topic of discussion at Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, where a collection of his work,”The Movement: Bob Adelman and Civil Rights Era Photography,” can be viewed until May 17, 2014.
Adelman has photographed cover stories for many magazines including Esquire, Time, Life and many more. He has also written more than a dozen books and produced many others, including King: The Photobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Among his many awards and accomplishments, Adelman has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and several Art Directors Club Awards. His photographs have been exhibited by the Smithsonian, the American Federation of Arts, as well as other institutions, and are included in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The legendary New York native Bob Adelman, joins me to talk about the Civil Rights Era, his iconic photographs and Dr. King.
JET: How did you become so personally involved with the civil rights movement?
Bob Adelman: Since attending high school in New York, I’ve had an affinity for African-American culture. I would hear artists such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and become drawn to those artists. At Rutgers University, my thesis was about the horrific slave trade. I was a young photographer and politically involved. The types of injustices taking place against African Americans were awful, unfair and un-American. Being involved in race matters was controversial. I viewed the racial situation as an original sin in American life.
At the time of the late ’50s and ’60s, the country was frozen. No president spoke out against segregation. I became active in the movement at the time of student sit-ins, which I thought were brilliant. Black bodies had been the focus of shackles, lynching and forbidden to go places, yet these incredible young people were taking their bodies to forbidden places and confronting segregation. I cared very strongly about the injustices directed toward the African-American community.
JET: You’ve described your witness of segregation as an “organized system of terror.” Can you elaborate on that?
BA: Segregation was not just separation of people. Segregation meant that if a White person was walking on a sidewalk, you had to get off of that sidewalk as an African American. If you tried to vote, you might lose your job or have a visit from the sheriff, Ku Klux Klan members or be killed. Voting carried power. The way the South won the Civil War was by taking away voting rights from Blacks and instilling a system of terror enforced by the Klan. The system sent a message to Blacks that they were inferior and should dwell in a separate world; it was a variation of slavery. Dr. King was the brilliant general who led the Civil Rights Movement. God, so many people were killed.
JET: You’ve taken very poignant and historical photographs. What is that one photo from the movement that stands out to you?
BA: I took the famous “I Have a Dream” photograph of Dr. King. For 50 years, I’ve been trying to figure out why I was the only photographer who took that iconic photograph. I was a volunteer working and had no credentials; I spent that first Freedom summer in Louisiana. I was terrified while trying to register voters. I went to Washington to capture the spirit of the movement. I took the photograph of the official March on Washington poster. It was an intense atmosphere!
JET: During the Civil Rights Movement, you were extremely close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the King family. In his private moments with family and close friends, what troubled Dr. King the most?
BA: I think his family was very troubled because he wasn’t well protected. He lived in constant terror and fear for his life. When I started photographing, I realized I could be killed for photographing Dr. King. He lived in so much fear. Some days his phone would ring all day with death threats. He was mobbed three times. He went to jail over 30 times.
JET: How were marchers so bravely able to resist retaliating with violence? Did you ever want to strike out physically as a result of all the violence taking place?
BA: We were trained on how to deal with violence, and how to protect ourselves. Dr. King needed to leave if violence broke out. Part of the brilliance of the movement was the practice of non-violence. When we practiced non-violence, we confused are adversaries. I saw friends beaten. I could not react. I learned that my photographs were more important because they were used as evidence in court, used to change public opinions and used for fundraising. In a profound sense, the movement revealed how segregation was ugly and un-American. The photographs were the evidence.
For more information about Adelman’s exhibit at the Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art, please visit moafl.org.
About Made of Shade Author
Quassan Castro is a news and entertainment journalist. Connect with Quassan on Twitter at @Quassan.