Photos: Remarkable (and rare) images of Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders
Stanford University’s Bob Fitch Photo Archive is a stunning visual account of a formative—and still highly relevant—American moment.
There is a curious image in Stanford University’s Bob Fitch Photo Archive, which shows the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in a crowded room of people, playing billiards. Taken in Chicago during 1966, it depicts King leaning in to line up his shot as a group of spectators watch attentively from behind him. To the right of King, one young man isn’t looking at the pool table, but at the camera with a grin that seems to say: “Yeah, this is pretty awesome.” It’s a lighthearted and rarely seen moment as King was deep into his work with the civil rights movement during what would be the final two years of his life.
Of course, there is no shortage of deeply poignant and dramatic scenes within the collection of Bob Fitch’s photographs, which so expressively capture the struggles of King, Cesar Chavez and other civil rights leaders. In fact, Fitch’s archive is teeming with stirring shots that speak to the gravity of the era: Stokely Carmichael giving a fiery speech at night in Mississippi, Black Panthers rallying in Oakland, a sixteen-year-old girl in Alabama leading a crowd against sheriff’s deputies (and local KKK). Yet that photo of King shooting pool jumps out a bit, not merely for it being such an offbeat moment, but perhaps because it so succinctly exemplifies the nuance and humanity of Fitch’s work.
“People would say, ‘What are you doing here? You look like a cop.’ And I would say, ‘I’m Dr. King’s photographer.’ And that opened doors.” — Bob Fitch, in a 2012 radio interview.
Looking through Bob Fitch’s powerful and incredibly intimate imagery, the question inevitably arises—how did a white photographer in his early 20s gain access to Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle during some of the most turbulent days of the civil rights movement? And the answer is simply that Fitch was just the right person for that precise moment in history, in ways both intentional and otherwise.
As a student of Berkeley High School during the 1950s, Fitch often attended local folk music gatherings (with the likes of now-iconic musician Pete Seeger) where he was exposed to a wide cross section of socially conscious viewpoints. This contrasted to the rigid and reserved atmosphere at Fitch’s home under a father who was both a Protestant minister and a professor of religious ethics. These two influences—of the church and the counterculture—conveyed to him an awareness and empathy for the adversity people were facing around the world.
While interning at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, Fitch’s path to photography emerged after encountering James Baldwin’s seminal work The Fire Next Time. “That book was the very pivot that drew me into photography,” Fitch recounted. “I remember reading it in one shot … at the end putting it down in a daze and having a vision of myself involved in some aesthetic pursuit that depicted what was in that book.”
At Glide, Fitch soon began shooting photographs for books that the church was publishing on urban issues. Developing as both a photographer and a social activist in this period, Fitch offered his services to the Southern Christian Leadership Council [SCLC], the organization presided over by Martin Luther King Jr. that had been born a few years earlier amid the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The group was specifically in need of a white photographer, and Fitch was willing to commit for the long term.
As he explained it years later in a radio interview, “Hosea Williams [King’s trusted field lieutenant] sat me down and said, ‘Bob we are going to send you into the field. The national black press can neither afford nor risk to send their staff to get beat up, hurt or killed, so we’re gonna send your white ass out there, and every week you are going to mail them photos and stories like a wire service.’ And that was the basic assignment.”
Fitch arrived in the aftermath of the pivotal Selma to Montgomery March, a turbulent period which teetered between the progressive passage of new anti-discrimination laws and the stark brutality of lynchings in the south.
For the better part of three years, Fitch had unique access to King and the other members of the SCLC, often being the only photographer in the room during key meetings. His photos from this era not only capture the grand moments of marches and speeches, but also the quiet and mundane spaces in between. At an airport in Montgomery, Alabama, Fitch photographed King (with SCLC executive director Andy Young), smoking a cigarette while appearing exhausted and frustrated.
After his tragic assassination in April of 1968, King’s widow Coretta Scott King personally requested for Fitch to photograph the funeral. In time, Fitch’s image of King, standing in his office next to a picture of Mahatma Gandhi, would serve as the basis for the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C.
Not long after King’s assassination, Fitch claims he had a vision of him while camping (“I don’t believe in those things, but it happened”), in which the deceased civil rights leader told him to, “Continue the work.”
Fitch then went on to document social struggles across spectrums of class and race for decades to come, focusing on the likes of Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Joan Baez, the Black Panthers and Congressman Ron Dellums (to name a few). He also put an emphasis on the rank and file of these movements, creating equally compelling imagery of common workers without the name recognition of the iconic figures at the head of these movements (or, as Fitch liked to cite—the unknown workers who build “the scaffold of justice”).
Collectively, Fitch’s archive within Stanford’s Department of Special Collections is a uniquely multi-faceted historical record: high profile leaders and unknown crusaders, pivotal moments and the many mundane intervals in between.
Yet especially notable within the archive are photos that just don’t fit the obvious narrative. At a Black Panther rally in Oakland, Fitch captured organizer Ericka Huggins laughing with exuberant joy, effectively breaking up the typical visual account of what a Black Panther rally is supposed to look like. Despite running soup kitchens, education programs and community organizing, the Black Panthers are often historically pigeonholed solely as militant activists. Fitch’s imagery provides a fuller narrative.
Which, of course, leads back to that shot of King shooting pool, a photo that is highly contrary to the prevalent historical imagery that exists for him. Typically, you’re most likely to see a photograph of King waving to a massive crowd on the National Mall during the occasion of his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. It is certainly an apt image, yet it narrows his legacy down to a visual sound bite.
Fitch’s images of King marching through southern towns or dejected in the airport give future generations a more accurate understanding of the arduous longterm day-to-day reality of these social struggles (after all, he didn’t just show up to the National Mall one day to give a speech to a massive crowd). Whereas, by contrast, the billiards photo simply affirms King’s everyday humanity.
Late in his life, King had given a speech (which you may have heard employed recently during a Super Bowl commercial to shamelessly sell pickup trucks) in which he sketched out a vision of individual “greatness” that was universal to the common person. It is a notion that Fitch was able to regularly capture and reinforce through his photography.
The Bob Fitch Photography Archive was acquired by Stanford University in 2013, and is located within the Department of Special Collections in the Stanford University Library (on campus in the Green Library Building). You can browse digitized files from the collection here, or download their exhibit catalogue from 2014–2015 here.