Black photographers and the civil rights struggle

Members of Fort Worth's Como High School band pose for Calvin Littlejohn’s camera in 1958. Littlejohn moved to Fort Worth in 1934 during the Jim Crow era, when mainstream newspapers wouldn't publish pictures of black citizens and white photographers wouldn't take pictures in black schools. Unperturbed, Littlejohn dedicated his career to capturing images of his adopted home and its black community. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Members of Fort Worth’s Como High School band pose for Calvin Littlejohn’s camera in 1958. Littlejohn moved to Fort Worth in 1934 during the Jim Crow era, when mainstream newspapers wouldn’t publish pictures of black citizens and white photographers wouldn’t take pictures in black schools. Unperturbed, Littlejohn dedicated his career to capturing images of his adopted home and its black community. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History

RC Hickman and Calvin Littlejohn were two African-American photojournalists working during America’s civil rights era who managed to capture a different side to Black life than usually depicted in mainstream media presentations of that time, both then and now.

Both worked locally, Hickman covering Dallas while Littlejohn worked in Fort Worth, during lifelong careers serving and documenting the Texan African-American communities in the decades following the Second World War.

That meant spending most of their time photographing the likes of weddings, parties, civic involvement, church life, high school homecomings, thriving businesses and family gatherings.

As a result, their body of work is different compared to most of the white photographers who flew in for the civil rights marches and protests at the time and then returned to the American media hubs in San Francisco or New York.

Through their work, Hickman and Littlejohn present a wide-ranging but rarely seen visual social history of African-American life during the civil rights era.

“Their photographs bring the people and the world they lived in out of the shadows of the past and memory,” says Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center of American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which houses the Hickman and Littlejohn photograph archives

While focusing on and capturing daily life, both photographers also covered crucial moments in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes enduring additional risks that came with being Black journalists, and visits by leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.

They also captured celebrities and entertainers who passed through their respective cities, such as the boxer Mohammed Ali and singer Nat King Cole.

But overall their work was largely about the everyday life of their subjects, illustrating a community that did the same things as everyone else – loved, laughed, worked, played – even amidst all the painful injustices and on-going tensions and calamities of the civil rights struggle.

By focusing on the good times and not just the problems, they captured the best of their communities, providing a more realistic and nuanced account of Black life and culture than typically portrayed.

“Here is a historically significant record of accomplished, hard-working Black middle-class citizens living in the urban South,” Barbara Jordan, the Texas senator who became the first black woman from the South elected to the US House of Representatives, said of Hickman’s work.

A group portrait by Littlejohn at a wedding reception buffet in Fort Worth. Racial segregation dominated American culture for the first half of the 20th century. Many states, especially those like Texas in the South, used segregation to systematically discriminate against black Americans in all areas of public life. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

A group portrait by Littlejohn at a wedding reception buffet in Fort Worth. Racial segregation dominated American culture for the first half of the 20th century. Many states, especially those like Texas in the South, used segregation to systematically discriminate against black Americans in all areas of public life. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
A man dressed as Santa Claus handing out Christmas gifts to children at a Fort Worth church in 1952. Unlike many segregated cities, where blacks lived only in one section, blacks in Fort Worth lived in every quadrant of the city. There was a thriving black downtown business district, with hotels, restaurants, a movie theatre, a bank, and a major hospital, pharmacy and nursing school, in addition to schools and churches - all eventually seen through Littlejohn's lens. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

A man dressed as Santa Claus handing out Christmas gifts to children at a Fort Worth church in 1952. Unlike many segregated cities, where blacks lived only in one section, blacks in Fort Worth lived in every quadrant of the city. There was a thriving black downtown business district, with hotels, restaurants, a movie theatre, a bank, and a major hospital, pharmacy and nursing school, in addition to schools and churches – all eventually seen through Littlejohn’s lens. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
A bride and groom cutting their wedding cake in 1952. The shared desire of civil rights leaders and organisations to repeal Jim Crow laws was often met with violence and intimidation by local officials and mobs, the photographed images of which dominated media coverage at the time. But all the while away from the marches and protests another side to Black life continued out of the gaze of mainstream America. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

A bride and groom cutting their wedding cake in 1952. The shared desire of civil rights leaders and organisations to repeal Jim Crow laws was often met with violence and intimidation by local officials and mobs, the photographed images of which dominated media coverage at the time. But all the while away from the marches and protests another side to Black life continued out of the gaze of mainstream America. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
A minister baptises a child at Allen Chapel in Fort Worth on Easter Sunday in 1969. Calvin Littlejohn was everywhere - he had to be for his photography studio work and occasional freelance photography for local newspapers. Although he never set out to be the documentarian of Fort Worth's Black community, that's what he achieved by striving to capture the best of a community. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

A minister baptises a child at Allen Chapel in Fort Worth on Easter Sunday in 1969. Calvin Littlejohn was everywhere – he had to be for his photography studio work and occasional freelance photography for local newspapers. Although he never set out to be the documentarian of Fort Worth’s Black community, that’s what he achieved by striving to capture the best of a community. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Attendees at the Jackie Robinson All-Star exhibition baseball game posing for Littlejohn under the stadium steps on 11 November 1949 (Robinson was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era). Littlejohn continued his photography studio for nearly six decades, initially focusing on the steady work offered by documenting the likes of families, business establishments, churches and schools. After his World War II service, he expanded the scope of his photography to capture recreation hall parties, speaking engagements, visiting celebrities, and other everyday events which produced more candid photographs than his studio portrait work. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Attendees at the Jackie Robinson All-Star exhibition baseball game posing for Littlejohn under the stadium steps on 11 November 1949 (Robinson was the first African American to play in Major League Baseball in the modern era). Littlejohn continued his photography studio for nearly six decades, initially focusing on the steady work offered by documenting the likes of families, business establishments, churches and schools. After his World War II service, he expanded the scope of his photography to capture recreation hall parties, speaking engagements, visiting celebrities, and other everyday events which produced more candid photographs than his studio portrait work. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
A couple posing behind the refreshment table at the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. Littlejohn’s work provides a comprehensive portrait of the African-American experience in Fort Worth and the surrounding Tarrant County during segregation and beyond, offering a stark alternative to images of civil rights protests and marches that dominated media at the time and came to represent the African-American experience. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

A couple posing behind the refreshment table at the celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. Littlejohn’s work provides a comprehensive portrait of the African-American experience in Fort Worth and the surrounding Tarrant County during segregation and beyond, offering a stark alternative to images of civil rights protests and marches that dominated media at the time and came to represent the African-American experience. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Dallas-based photographer RC Hickman captures a group of children at the Exline Park swimming pool on 27 July 1955. "Hickman was an outstanding photographer whose work will remain a permanent visual record of a significant transitional era in the history of the African-American community in Dallas," says Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Dallas-based photographer RC Hickman captures a group of children at the Exline Park swimming pool on 27 July 1955. “Hickman was an outstanding photographer whose work will remain a permanent visual record of a significant transitional era in the history of the African-American community in Dallas,” says Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
A children's birthday party in 1955 through the lens of Hickman, who as a freelance photographer for local papers also captured much uglier scenes when covering the civil rights struggle. In August 1956, when Hickman arrived in Manseld, Texas, to document the integration of the local high school, he saw figures swinging from the playground trees: effigies of black students, mock-lynched by a white mob. Hickman worked quickly to capture the scene but was spotted by the mob, who then tried to capture him, before he managed to escape by car. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

A children’s birthday party in 1955 through the lens of Hickman, who as a freelance photographer for local papers also captured much uglier scenes when covering the civil rights struggle. In August 1956, when Hickman arrived in Manseld, Texas, to document the integration of the local high school, he saw figures swinging from the playground trees: effigies of black students, mock-lynched by a white mob. Hickman worked quickly to capture the scene but was spotted by the mob, who then tried to capture him, before he managed to escape by car. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
In this photo by Hickman, the renowned jazz musician Lionel Hampton leads his band performing in Dallas on 12 March 1953. Hickman’s interest in photography developed during his World War II military service, leading to him becoming an official Army photographer. After the war''s end, he returned to Dallas and began a professional career as a photographer at the Dallas Star Post newspaper, before working for various other local papers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

In this photo by Hickman, the renowned jazz musician Lionel Hampton leads his band performing in Dallas on 12 March 1953. Hickman’s interest in photography developed during his World War II military service, leading to him becoming an official Army photographer. After the war”s end, he returned to Dallas and began a professional career as a photographer at the Dallas Star Post newspaper, before working for various other local papers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Passengers enjoying the crowds lining the parade route during the Texas State Fair in Dallas on 17 October 1955. Photojournalism presentations of the civil rights era - as with all photojournalism representations - can run the risk of oversimplifying Black Americans at the same time it celebrates them. While people marched bravely and effected change, there was much more to their lives than just that - hence the efforts of Hickman and his camera to demonstrate the reality. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Passengers enjoying the crowds lining the parade route during the Texas State Fair in Dallas on 17 October 1955. Photojournalism presentations of the civil rights era – as with all photojournalism representations – can run the risk of oversimplifying Black Americans at the same time it celebrates them. While people marched bravely and effected change, there was much more to their lives than just that – hence the efforts of Hickman and his camera to demonstrate the reality. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Actors preparing for a play at the Little Theatre in Dallas on 10 August 1953. “These are images of the ordinary lives of extraordinary people who succeeded in spite of all the obstacles in their path, and who eventually demanded and, in important ways, won their rights,” Texas Senator and US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan said of Hickman’s work. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Actors preparing for a play at the Little Theatre in Dallas on 10 August 1953. “These are images of the ordinary lives of extraordinary people who succeeded in spite of all the obstacles in their path, and who eventually demanded and, in important ways, won their rights,” Texas Senator and US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan said of Hickman’s work. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Teenagers dancing at Dallas Empire Room on 6 August 1956 take a break to pose for Hickman. By the early and mid-1960s, larger marches and protests helped to finally open the door for major civil rights legislation. Eventually schools and colleges began to integrate, black Americans gained political rights, and American culture was challenged and changed. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Teenagers dancing at Dallas Empire Room on 6 August 1956 take a break to pose for Hickman. By the early and mid-1960s, larger marches and protests helped to finally open the door for major civil rights legislation. Eventually schools and colleges began to integrate, black Americans gained political rights, and American culture was challenged and changed. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Revelers at a table in a Dallas nightclub in 1955. Hickman, like Littlejohn, continued for decades photographing his changing community. Hickman died in Dallas on 1 December 2007, while Littlejohn died at his home in Fort Worth on 6 September 1993. Thanks to their combined images, the richness and complexity of Black life and culture during a pivotal time in America’s history lives on. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Revelers at a table in a Dallas nightclub in 1955. Hickman, like Littlejohn, continued for decades photographing his changing community. Hickman died in Dallas on 1 December 2007, while Littlejohn died at his home in Fort Worth on 6 September 1993. Thanks to their combined images, the richness and complexity of Black life and culture during a pivotal time in America’s history lives on. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Self-portrait of Calvin Littlejohn. [Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Self-portrait of Calvin Littlejohn. Calvin Littlejohn; Calvin Littlejohn Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History
Self-portrait of RC Hickman. [RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History]

Self-portrait of RC Hickman. RC Hickman; RC Hickman Photographic Archive, Briscoe Center for American History

Source: Aljazeera

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