Monday 12 August 2013

With a Click of His Shutter

"...the most effective and best remembered campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement were those where the news media captured iconic images that the nation found impossible to ignore."

Captured: 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

National Guard outside Birmingham, Alabama bus depot on May 24,1961 courtesy

Birmingham Post-Herald photographer Tommy Langston was dispatched to the town's bus depot to cover the Freedom Rider's arrival in May of 1961.  Armed only with his camera, he set out on foot to his destination only three blocks away.  Prone to seek out danger, Tommy had no idea what he was about to encounter.  The Birmingham Police, knowing there would be a confrontation, deliberately stayed away from the bus station. When the photographer arrived, he found 100 Klu Klux Klan members attacking the Freedom Riders.  Tommy snapped only one photograph before the KKK members turned their wrath on him, smashing his twin Rolleiflex camera and kicking his ribs. Battered and bruised, Tommy fled the bus depot and ran the three blocks back to the newspaper office, his smashed camera under his arm, collapsing upon arrival.

Camera similar to the one used by Tommy Langston courtesy

Thinking his film was destroyed he was surprised to discover that it was very much intact.  The next day, the Birmingham Post Herald ran his photograph which was viewed not only by Birmingham residents but also Americans across the country.  For the first time, the entire nation could see what these Freedom Rides were all about.  The nation saw unarmed riders being assaulted by armed goons.  They saw unarmed riders refusing to fight back.  They saw armed goons returning for more assaults.  They saw unarmed riders refusing to fight back.  

Captured: 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

Tom Langston's photo on May 15, 1961.

Birmingham businessmen saw the police commissioner Bull Connor sanctioning the actions of the KKK as the city and the nation watched.  On a practical level, they knew it was bad for business.  Viewers of the photographers also saw FBI informant Gary Thomas Rowe play a role in the beatings, putting the Bureau in a bad light.

Bull Connor courtesy

The photograph soon became not national, but international news as it was picked up by newspapers all over the world.  

With a click of his shutter, Tommy Langston had snapped "the picture that changed Birmingham".  But the photograph would come with a price:  Tommy and his family suffered threats from local racists and he decided to shepherd his pregnant wife out of town. 

National Guard troops protect a Trailways bus carrying Freedom Riders on Highway 80 near Cuba,

Photo of National Guard protecting Freedom Rider bus courtesy The Birmingham News.

While the Freedom Rides would end in September of 1961, Tommy's photo would hang in the Herald-Post building for decades.  One colleague who worked with the photographer in the 1980's said that Tommy never mentioned that he took the famous photograph that hung on the wall.  Not one to brag, she said he was the "penultimate gentlemen" who once gave her his coat to wear while they waited to cross a busy highway on a cold, windy night.

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