Photojournalism in Nashville During the Civil Rights Era

Cover of We Shall Overcome (undated); demonstrators sang in front of the Nashville Police Department on August 7, 1961, protesting what they called police brutality in a racial clash two nights earlier. They criticized “inadequate” police protection and called for qualified black personnel to “replace incompetent officers on the police force” (photo by Eldred Reaney courtesy The Tennessean).

In a photograph by Eldred Reaney, a journalist employed by the daily newspaper The Tennessean, a long line of marchers winds from one city block, around a standing police officer, across a hectic intersection with cars (momentarily halted) coming from at least four different directions, and down into the lower left corner and out of the picture’s frame. The marchers are crisply organized. Most of the men are dressed in suits with collared white shirts and accompanying ties, while some wear only the shirt and tie combination without the suit jacket. The marchers who can be clearly identified as women all seem to wear long dresses or outfits with skirts that end below the knee. This image, “Plate 34” (April 19, 1960) in the exhibition catalog We Shall Overcome: Press Photographs of Nashville in the Civil Rights Era is deeply evocative of the character of the entire classic Civil Rights Movement and its instantiation in that city: disciplined, trained, communal, nimbly able to circumvent obstacles while staying fixed on the goal ahead. One can tell these marchers are utterly resolute.

Eldred Reaney “Plate 34” (April 19, 1960). Like a giant serpent, the line of Black college demonstrators wends its way around the courthouse area, coming out from Jefferson Street and James Robertson Boulevard April 19, 1960. The Blacks, on the day of the Z. Alexander Looby bombing, marching three abreast stretched 10 blocks (photo by Eldred Reaney, courtesy The Tennessean)

Though “Plate 34” (April 19, 1960), is rather typical of images documenting the Civil Rights Movement’s early Southern manifestations, it is less habitually associated with the movement, in favor of other kinds of images also proffered in this collection: White segregationists staging their own counter protests; White mobs beating and brutalizing Black activists; White police doing the same under the cover of keeping the peace; Black church services; funerals where Civil Rights leaders are publicly and fervently mourned; National Guardsmen standing with rifles at the ready, trying to stanch the overflow of violence. There is much heartache to partake of in this book, but one image that I find particularly wrenching is taken by photographer Bill Preston of the Reverend Cephus C. Coleman on August 7, 1962. In the photograph, “Plate 57” Coleman stands outside the burning husk of what was once his house, while White firefighters blithely stand just a few feet away, according to the caption, only “to protect buildings on either side … in that predominantly white neighborhood of Tusculum.” Because he gazes away from the viewer, I can’t tell what look is on his face. And though it isn’t my house and the act of arson took place before I was born, I feel enraged for him.

Bill Preston “Plate 57” (August 7, 1962). Tusculum firemen, right, stand by to protect homes on either side of the burning home of Rev. Cephus C. Coleman, center, a black minister. His home, in a predominantly white neighborhood. is destroyed by the third blaze to break out the same night. The Davidson County sheriff’s chief investigator later said, “arson is definitely the cause” of the fire. One neighbor, who refused to be identified said about blacks moving into the house, “They’re trying to do a little block busting.” (photo by Bill Preston, courtesy The Tennessean)

Leavening the sense of injury is a foreword from Congressman John Lewis who exhorts the reader: “We can make a difference … No matter how fierce the adversary, no matter how organized the opposition, no matter how powerful the resistance, nothing can stop the movement of a disciplined, determined people motivated by justice.”  The other prefatory material provides historical context to the images. In her preface, Kathryn Delmez — the curator of the exhibition that this book documents and mirrors, We Shall Overcome: Civil Rights and the Nashville Press, 1957–1968 — informs the reader that the array of images in We Shall Overcome (all black and white) were taken by photographers employed by the daily newspapers The Tennessean and the Nashville Banner. More, they were taken at the beginning of actual (as opposed to legal) desegregation, from 1957, until 1968, a little after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and many of these images had never published before. In Susan H. Edwards’s essay, “The Nashville Beat: Photojournalism during the Civil Rights Movement,” she explains that “Editorial policy often withheld inflammatory images for fear of inciting further unrest.”

An essay by Linda Wynn on Nashville’s tortured history reveals a city of contravening tensions. Nashville slow walked the formulation of a desegregation plan only after the insistence of a federal district judge, about three years after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision came down. And when it did finally create a plan, it only desegregated one grade per year, while including an indulgent transfer policy that essentially allowed for schools to remain segregated. By the same token, it was also the first Southern city to, in 1960, within three months of the first sit-in protests organized at lunch counters and stores, begin to desegregate its public facilities.

In May 1963, Nashville student demonstrators took to the streets in solidarity with protestors in Birmingham, Alabama. Crowd tensions intensified on Sixth Avenue North. Bill Goodman captured fellow Banner photographer Jack Gunter covering the demonstrations. May 10, 1963 (photo by Bill Goodman, Nashville Banner Archives, Nashville Public Library, Special Collections)

One confluence I didn’t expect was to see in the very first plate (September 9, 1957) a small girl, Linda Gail McKinley being walked by her mother Grace McKinley and her friend Rita Buchanan to a newly desegregated school, past a line of White protesters. The younger McKinley looks terrified. But in plate 16, in an image taken the very next day, she looks at the camera with iron determination, sitting in a classroom where only one other child is present, a small Black boy named Charles Elbert Ridley. I find out that they are the only two children in attendance that day because the east wing of their school was bombed shortly after midnight. They grow up so fast because they have to.

The presence of children in these images and throughout We Shall Overcome are reminders of our current social movements and the groups that propel to public consciousness, among them: Black Lives Matter, Everytown for Gun Safety, and March for Our Lives. Indeed, many of the same tactics are used now: disruption of public services, lie-ins, media messaging, marches, and petitions to political and governmental authority. One of the great boons of these social movements is how much they push forward and enact the key principle of intersectionality: the notion that socially and politically marginalized groups, though distinct, must share a similar political ambition: the full and unreserved recognition of their humanity by the dominant class. Following on this, intersectionality also entails that members of these groups must fully participate in the administration of the social order for it to be valid at all.

Following King’s assassination, National Guardsmen surround the Tennessee State Capitol in case violence erupts. April 6, 1968 (photo by Bob Ray, Nashville Banner Archives, Nashville Public Library, Special Collections).

It would be lovely if the book ended on a hopeful inflection, a vision of what such a culture might look like. However, the last plate shows a group of National Guardsmen, rifles held at their sides, standing outside the Tennessee State Capitol building on April 6, 1968, two days after Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis. They stand protecting a stone-walled institution that in the polar tones of the image is glaring in its whiteness. Despite John Lewis’s exhortation that we can make a difference, despite the lived conviction that we can and will overcome, it is still there today, and it still gleams white all day long and through the night.

We Shall Overcome: Press Photographs of Nashville in the Civil Rights Era by Katherine E. Delmez, editor (2018) is published by the Frist Art Museum and Vanderbilt University Press and is available from Amazon and other retailers.

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