IN 1963, Walter Gadsden, 15 years old, was attacked by a police dog during a protest on the streets of Birmingham, Alabama. The moment was captured by Bill Hudson of the Associated Press. His photograph was later said to have brought the world to the side of the civil rights movement—a grand claim but not an unreasonable one, given both the photo’s mass-circulation and the meanings ascribed to it by white audiences.
Gadsden was a “frail Negro,” in one description; full of “saintly calm,” in the words of Diane McWhorter, paraphrasing the photographer’s editor. The writer Paul Hemphill, in his memoir of growing up in Birmingham, saw a “thin well-dressed boy seeming to be leaning into the dog, his arms limp at his side, calmly staring straight ahead as though to say, ‘Take me, here I am.’” Hudson’s photo offered a drama of wholesome nonresistance, with Gadsden in the role of a martyred innocent.
But something was obscured in that narrative, as Martin Berger argues in Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography. The white gaze skipped right over the signs of Gadsden’s resistance— the hand on the cop’s arm, the left knee thrust into the dog’s chest. These details did not fit with the prevailing picture of the struggle for civil rights. What white people saw instead was Black passivity. In Gadsden they saw a vulnerable boy who, like Black people throughout the South, was in need of white help. The photo may have drawn sympathetic white liberals to the cause of racial justice, but it did so, Berger writes, on terms that allowed them to feel secure and magnanimous, as if they were “bestowing rights” on Black people.
In May 2020, people again took to the streets, this time in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Many things had changed since the day Hudson trained his lens on Gadsden. The Black Lives Matter movement enjoyed broader support than the civil rights movement did in its time, and the media documenting the uprising was no longer so monochromatically white.
But were things really all that different? I looked at front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post during the hectic early days of the protests and saw several familiar tropes, marshaled in familiar ways. The visual portrayal of the uprising was operating within the same boundaries established by well-meaning but ultimately self-interested white liberals during the civil rights era. Now as then, it seemed, the principal concern was to channel and validate white response to Black rebellion in the streets.
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