Black photographers and the civil rights struggle
Two photographers captured a different side of the African-American experience during the Civil Rights struggle.
RC Hickman and Calvin Littlejohn were two African-American photojournalists working during America’s civil rights era who managed to capture a different side to Black life than usually depicted in mainstream media presentations of that time, both then and now.
Both worked locally, Hickman covering Dallas while Littlejohn worked in Fort Worth, during lifelong careers serving and documenting the Texan African-American communities in the decades following the Second World War.
That meant spending most of their time photographing the likes of weddings, parties, civic involvement, church life, high school homecomings, thriving businesses and family gatherings.
As a result, their body of work is different compared to most of the white photographers who flew in for the civil rights marches and protests at the time and then returned to the American media hubs in San Francisco or New York.
Through their work, Hickman and Littlejohn present a wide-ranging but rarely seen visual social history of African-American life during the civil rights era.
“Their photographs bring the people and the world they lived in out of the shadows of the past and memory,” says Don Carleton, executive director of the Dolph Briscoe Center of American History at the University of Texas at Austin, which houses the Hickman and Littlejohn photograph archives
While focusing on and capturing daily life, both photographers also covered crucial moments in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes enduring additional risks that came with being Black journalists, and visits by leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr and Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.
They also captured celebrities and entertainers who passed through their respective cities, such as the boxer Mohammed Ali and singer Nat King Cole.
But overall their work was largely about the everyday life of their subjects, illustrating a community that did the same things as everyone else – loved, laughed, worked, played – even amidst all the painful injustices and on-going tensions and calamities of the civil rights struggle.
By focusing on the good times and not just the problems, they captured the best of their communities, providing a more realistic and nuanced account of Black life and culture than typically portrayed.
“Here is a historically significant record of accomplished, hard-working Black middle-class citizens living in the urban South,” Barbara Jordan, the Texas senator who became the first black woman from the South elected to the US House of Representatives, said of Hickman’s work.