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May 21, 2006

Seeing The Unseen, Fifty Years Later


By Contributing Blogger, Cara Finnegan.

In late February the Birmingham (Ala.) News published a collection of pictures of the city’s civil rights era struggles. The man on the right is Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham civil rights leader. News photographer Robert Adams captured this moment as Shuttlesworth was attempting to enter a whites-only waiting room at the Birmingham Terminal Station on March 6, 1957.

Five thousand never-before-published photos like this one were discovered in a closet by an intern at the newspaper in 2004. The article about the discovery says that many photographs were suppressed by the paper in an effort to cover up embarrassing truths about the city’s race relations. Just a few years after this picture was made, Birmingham’s black citizens would be tortured by Bull Connor’s police dogs, slammed into brick walls by his fire hoses, and devastated by a church bombing that killed four young girls.

All of the pictures are worth study, but I am riveted by this one.

Look at the parallel body language of Shuttlesworth and his white adversary. They are practically mirror images of one another, standing there face-to-face, eye-to-eye and maybe soon even nose-to-nose. In Birmingham circa 1957 the two men were not socially and politically equal, but in the photographer’s lens they are. In that visual equality I think the camera’s telling us something: things are about to change in Birmingham. And what about those cameras? My eye is drawn equally to them. The very presence of the cameras escalates the drama of the confrontation. My gaze keeps bouncing back and forth between the photographer on the far left of the frame and the one standing between the two men, looking as if he might use his camera to break up the fight. He also looks like he’s in the middle of changing his film, signaling to us perhaps that there will be more of this story to tell.

At the News web site you can also access audio of Shuttlesworth and Lamar Weaver, a white supporter of civil rights, narrating their harrowing experience in the Terminal Station that day. The combination of image and voice bears powerful witness.

The BAG welcomes Cara Finnegan as a new regular contributing blogger.  Cara is an associate professor of speech communication and art history at the University of Illinois. She is a communication historian whose research specializes in the political uses of photography.

(image: Robert Adams/ Birmingham News.  March 6, 1957. caption: The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth is stopped before entering the whites only waiting room at Birmingham's Terminal station. This photo came one day after the Alabama Public Service Commission ruled that the waiting rooms must remain segregated. Shuttlesworth informed the media of his plans to integrate the waiting rooms and was followed by reporters, photographers and a white mob estimated at more than 100. After being told that he was not wanted inside, Shuttlesworth replied: "It's not up to you to tell me where to go.")


A visitor from Mars not schooled in the hierarchies of melanin observed by some human social organizations might see a human drone getting instructions from a member of a higher caste, perhaps direction as to which baggage to bear to what destination. The higher status human is wearing finer clothing and headgear that is more suited for projecting status than protection from the elements.

Said visitor might wonder at the presence of professional information gatherers at such a mundane event and would likely not believe the explanation given by humans.

The Black man, and the *official looking White man* in the far background both share similar postures, the former says firmly "I'm listening", the latter "I'm waiting and I'm curious for some action". Impudence is on the face and in the stance of the scruffy little white boy-man, learning in with a *feigned bravo*, hands in a back pocket bullshit posture, hoping like hell to get some physical response, even a slightly raised black hand would give this bigoted self righteous punk a simpletons justification for striking out. With three other whites he remains out numbered in addition to being overwhelmingly out classed. He desperately needs a Klan Hood to hang in there much longer.

Welcome, Cara. thanks to BAG for presenting these images. I remember that the late 50's thru 60's were scary times for people standing up for their rights. A person could really get killed doing it.

I see bravery in this picture, threat. I am reminded by the photos of brave blacks to remember that heritage (our common heritage now) and to have courage to fight today's threats.

Huh. Because of the extreme darkness in the background and the bright washout of the flash used, I first though these men were outside somewhere, under some sort of bridge or viaduct. Gradually the background details came to me, and I could see they were in a lobby or loggia. Before reading the text more carefully, I though perhaps they were in the lobby or loggia of a courthouse instead of the very grand (and now demolished) Terminal.

It's very strange that the lights are off, even though it's very dark outside. You can even see unlit fixtures overhead. If they're indoors, why didn't anyone turn on the lights? If they're outdoors in some sort of arcade, well, you would expect the exterior lights to be left lit until very late, if not all night (wouldn't such a major train depot be open 24 hours?).

Probably somebody shut off all the lights, deliberately blacking out the whole building to help in preventing the blacks from entering. It creates a very odd effect--as if these people are up conducting this affair at three in the morning when everyone ought to be home in bed.

The white man is dressed in a pair of sloppy jeans and a sweater while Shuttlesworth and the photographers wear the respectable mens' clothing of the time--suits, overcoats and hats. Back then, Americans dressed more formally in their everyday life than they do today. The man's jeans don't look out of place to us, but during the late fifties it would have marked him as "white trash"--especially since they're torn at the back.

Now that we live in the era of point-and-shoot, the photographers' cameras look bizarrely large and cumbersome. The photographer behind the two men is changing his film--one picture at a time. But those bulky cameras created the great, crisp negatives that were able to last in good condition for the forty years or so between the time they were taken and now. Would the record of the civil rights movement be as complete if digital photography had been available then? Or would photos like these been deleted long ago?

I noticed the difference in attire right away also. Do you suppose the white man is dressed like that because he was in a hurry to get to the station? He just threw on the first thing available? His clothes make him look like a frat boy, as well. (Modern version, don't know how frat boys dressed then)

Also, are the photographer present to document civil rights struggles or how "uppity the nigras are gettin'?" Depends on who sent them, I guess.

the white man as something in his back pocket, more that likly a knife. that is the favorite place to carry one's knife in those days. just one more thing the black man learned from us white folks

The real confrontation is between Shuttleworth and the man at the door, who matches him in dress and posture.

The "white trash" is serving as messenger and muscle for the man at the door. (And yes, he either has his hand on a knife in his pocket or wants Shuttlesworth and the world to think so.)

Perhaps the BAG could comment on this, but I remember hearing a psychologist talk some years ago about, when two people are talking to each other, they tend to mimic each other's body stances and gestures. I just noticed that the white man and black man, with all their supposed differences, are standing in exactly opposite poses......mirror images in more ways than one. The white man seems to be leaning forward almost imperceptibly, but the black man is not backing off, he's standing his ground. What courage that must have taken!

Rich, with his thumb sticking out, if he has a weapon it must be a fairly short switch blade, to me the thumb represents "cool", but I was wondering what you meant by-"just one more thing the black man learned from us white folks"

Cactus the position of the hand and the slant of the shoulders are distinctly different, the white boys head is facing downward while his counterpoint is slightly upward also the black mans gaze is direct the white mans is not. If one were looking at this confrontation from a martial arts perspective re posture and position ( and ignoring my assumed implication of this previous comment-"even a slightly raised black hand would give this bigoted self righteous punk a simpletons justification for striking")the white man is extremely vulnerable one clue is learning forward puts him off balance to being knocked down physically if the black man chooses to respond assertively rather than fend off an attack. (That as you may know was one of the tenents or tactics The Black Panthers advocated which is a whole different topic) In my opinion most subjected people read the behavior of their supposed superiors extremely well and for good reason, which gives this blackman an advantage here.
Not with standing I too would enjoy the Bags response to your query.

Nell- "is serving as messenger and muscle for *the man at the door"*-- I've speculate on his role in this drama, an local detective, an FBI agent, call in the goons, call the police, watch for more blacks, call the radio station-that would really speed things up in a hurry.

Cara thanks for your contribution and welcome to the BAG, in response to your " looking as if he might use his camera to break up the fight." especially in 1957 it takes more imagination than I can muster to believe that these *photographer's would intervene*. In 1963 I went into a Greyhound bus station somewhere in Texas it had a U shaped bar I got the last empty stool. Then I noticed that on my side were all blacks and opposite all whites. Before I had a chance to reach for a menu a huge black man whispered quietly "man you don't want to be sitting here" saying "I felt comfortable" his eyes said we don't need the hassle man, not here, not now. Coming from Canada where we discriminated with greater subtly I ordered a coffee receiving *exceptionally fast service* and returned to the bus.

Okay, jt, I exaggerated a bit with the mirror image. And the mimicking is not exact, but if you watch some of the talking-head TV programs, notice how when one crosses legs, the other does also. Or when one puts arms akimbo, the other follows shortly. I don't know if this works with more than two people, but I'll start watching.

You are right about the photographers not intervening. There's a recent book by a news reporter who went south and wrote stories in sympathy with the black freedom movement. He was threatened and eventually left the paper.

I'm interested in the comparison jt and nell are making between Shuttlesworth and the man at the door. Assuming this is who really governs who passes or not (and Shuttlesworth is aware of him), his posture becomes particularly interesting. My thought is that Shuttlesworth assumes a parallel posture to signal and establish parity. The cocked arm with the jutting elbow can be seen as a challenge and a declaration. It says: I can't be denied and I will press my case.

According to the caption, Shuttlesworth has brought the press along and fully intends to get inside. From the physical dynamics, I believe it. Whether this "white trash" guy has some weapon or not, I actually don't see him offering much resistance. Otherwise, his shoulders would be more raised and taut, and you would see his chest sticking out -- not his gut.

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