The effect of Civil Rights photobooks in transforming the social consciousness of young people

Children sit together on a tree limb in an uncredited Seventh-Day Adventist image. From Louis B. Reynolds and Charles L. Paddock, Little Journeys into Storyland: Stories That Will Live and Lift (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1947).

Associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut

2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, legislation that responded to repressive practices in the South severely limiting black enfranchisement, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. When we think about the Civil Rights Movement, we tend to think through such landmark events, those marshalled by prominent leaders and located in the public record. Considering the events of fifty years ago, in the spring and summer of 1965, the marches in Selma spring to mind, especially given the 2014 film that dramatized “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Young people were deeply invested in the movement, of course, and while we remember the losses of individuals like Emmett Till and the four little girls, other accounts of children’s participation in the movement often focus on numbers – hundreds of children jailed with King in Birmingham, scores of children marching in protests, groups of teenagers in Freedom Schools in Mississippi. When I think about how to access the stories of young people, individuals who worked with great forethought and commitment on behalf of social justice, I think about the public terrain of childhood, which for me is children’s books.

In charting the contours of children’s investment in the Civil Rights Movement, I was excited to read a newspaper clipping located in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale’s Beinecke library. This article was sent to Hughes by Ezell A. Blair, one of the four teenagers who started the 1960 Woolworth counter sit-ins, and described Blair’s friend, Joseph McNeil, in these terms:

 “The youth credited with starting the Southern sit-in demonstrations said today a picture book gave him the courage to do it.” 

The book that inspired McNeil was Hughes’s and Milton Meltzer’s Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956), a compendium of historical commentary, documentation, illustration, and photographs. The article described McNeil’s sense of connection to protest children: “‘I’d read how other fellows had made sacrifices,’ he said, ‘I remembered the kids at Little Rock, and I realized I hadn’t made my contribution.’” Young people’s social action allowed McNeil to see himself and his possibilities differently, as did the photographs within Pictorial History, especially the image of Emmett Till, a boy presented there in an iconic photograph taken sometime before his lynching. The image closes up on his generous smile, his poise emphasized by a dress shirt and tie. I interviewed McNeil about his response to the book, and he reflected particularly about the relationship of racial violence to black childhood:

 “This kind of violence could happen to our parents, could happen to us, and if we did not do something, it would happen to our children.” 

In truth, McNeil saw himself in the photographs within Pictorial History, both in the possibility of a shattered childhood offered by Till and in the courage of young people working towards integration. That identification moved McNeil to take action. The photographs were particularly transformative to McNeil, as he told me:

“Pictures are a powerful way to communicate. . . . Resistance was how I saw it, and in order to understand how we resisted in the past, Hughes captured all of that, smiling on the outside but crying on the inside.” 

Four teenagers in a college dorm looked at the photographs in a history book and decided to change the world. This was something different than witnessing photographs within a newspaper or periodical, though certainly the September 1955 Jet magazine coverage of Till’s lynching galvanized a generation of young activists. The fact was that McNeil and his friends engaged the historical continuity outlined in the book – that black communities had been resisting oppression for centuries – and then saw themselves as the next chapter in that story. The book form and the photographic document made change seem possible.

Other Civil Rights activists saw the potential of the photobook for transforming the social consciousness of young people. The same spring that King marched in Selma, and the same summer that the Voting Rights Act passed, Doris Derby was preparing for her work with the very young through the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM). This grass-roots early education program, which was organized by movement activists, recruited and trained African Americans from the south to build schools and begin teaching. Derby, a black New Yorker who had studied elementary education and cultural anthropology at Hunter College, had been living in Mississippi since 1963, developing adult literacy materials to support the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s voter registration efforts. She joined the CDGM as head teacher at Newell Chapel in Holly Springs, Mississippi. One of the first things she did was to create a photographic picture book based on the school and the experience of her students. She told me in an interview:

“I wanted photographs of the children themselves so they could look, and they could say, ‘This is me. I’m seeing my image written. I’m seeing my images in a book.’ They don’t care whether it’s a book published by some well-known publisher. They want to see their images. And they can say, ‘these are my words,’ and they’ll recognize them.” 

The beautiful photobook Derby created, Today, offered a local community the kind of validation that textual representation can provide. And for the children reading Today, photographs of themselves enabled a psychologically transformative experience—of recognition of their own beauty and value, and of their ability to place off-frame the white violence that shadowed the world of their preschool. Today permitted children to claim the process of bookmaking, the authority of authorship, and the control rendered through self-articulation. Psychological freedom, that precursor to social action, was the goal of Derby’s collaborative book. McNeil of the Woolworth counter protests may have imagined himself enacting a future chapter in Hughes’s book; Derby’s students could see themselves safe, happy, and free, within the pages of Today. Derby said of her work with the preschool:

“As you did more, as it became successful, as it was good, as it made strides, resistance! And so people who were willing to participate in it knew that they were resisting, they were fighting for something that was their right, their future as American citizens.” 

In one potent image within Today, children make a tower of blocks in the foreground while women organize for a meeting at the edge of the page. As a community, children and adults were building a new sense of themselves and their future, claiming the power of representation in word and image.

Children play with blocks while adults gather in the background. From Today, Child Development Group of Mississippi, 1965. McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.

Legibility and cultural memory are contests of power. As we recall the landmark events of 1965—the victories of the Voting Rights Act and the Immigration Act, as well as the losses of Malcolm X and the riots in Watts—we can also seek out stories of Civil Rights mobilization that are, perhaps, more local and intimate. We can also consider the idea that books can be social, that a reading experience can draw children into conversation with adults and into conversation with the ideas the books explore. For civil rights photobooks, a form that seeks to inspire a child’s participatory response, images can spur reflection on the possibility and value of a young person’s life.


Katharine Capshaw is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut, Storrs and the author of Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks.

“Katharine Capshaw’s new study—intersecting photography, children’s literature, and the civil rights movement—is a rich and strikingly original addition to the growing scholarship on African American childhood. Many scholars will appreciate and be indebted to this important work.”—Gerald Early, Washington University in St. Louis

“Capshaw’s analysis and contextualization of the works in question break entirely new ground, offering original ways of thinking about how the photographic book operated as a medium particularly suited to African-American authors, child readers, and messages about civil rights.”—Julia Mickenberg, University of Texas at Austin

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