About five or six times in his life, Bob Fitch had what he described as “mystical moments with the camera”. The photographer would feel like he was disappearing, almost melting into the viewfinder, absorbed into a trance.
Almost 59 years ago, on June 11, 1966, Fitch was on the March Against Fear, a civil rights demonstration covering 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. Hundreds of marchers had just paraded through the Mississippi town of Batesville, belting out freedom songs and defying the glares of white spectators. They gathered in the town square.
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Inside the Panola County Courthouse, Fitch photographed local blacks as they registered to vote. One man was slight and toothless, with a white, stubbly beard. He trembled and needed a cane. As they emerged from the building, the marchers hoisted this newly registered voter on to their shoulders and cried “Hip hip hooray!”
Fitch had his moment of transcendence. His spirit floated, and his camera clicked. He caught a perfect shot of the ancient man with his left arm raised, parallel to the column of the courthouse. The next morning, that photograph was in newspapers around the United States.
The man was named El Fondren. He said that he was 106 years old. He was almost certainly born a slave.
Bob Fitch died this past weekend, following complications from Parkinson’s disease. He had worked as the official photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organisation led by Martin Luther King.
Fitch recognised that successful social movements are built on the extraordinary choices of 'ordinary' people such as El Fondren ...
Fitch loved King, and he later photographed such social justice icons as Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, and the Berrigan Brothers.
But the most important occasion of his life was his shot of El Fondren.
“I see him every day,” Fitch recently reflected.
In our chronicles of the past, we naturally gravitate to the big names and conflicts. But Fitch recognised that successful social movements are built on the extraordinary choices of “ordinary” people such as El Fondren, a man that various census records listed as born between 1858 and 1862. For most of his long life, he worked as a cotton sharecropper.
Fondren fitted no iconic image of a black sacrificial lamb. He quoted the Bible, but he also liked whisky and cigarettes and women.
Stark racial codes
He survived Mississippi’s stark racial codes with wit and grit. According to his grandson Jessie Cook, Fondren once was walking home late at night when a car filled with white men bumped him into a ditch.
To be safe, he played dead. He later saw them in daylight.
“What are y’all looking at?” he teased. “You ain’t looking at no ghost.”
Many times before the March Against Fear, the county registrar had turned away Fondren. The ballot was not some abstract participation in civic life. Black votes meant decent policemen, fairer tax assessors, paved roads, better schools. Only in 1966, after he had buried most of his own children, could he finally stake this claim to genuine citizenship.
In one image, Fitch immortalised Fondren’s century-long saga. But that photograph says something about Fitch, too. He was a white man born into privilege.
Motivated by faith and conscience, he learned that to support a just cause, he had to make himself part of a community, respecting those that he supported.
Fitch had grown up in a conservative Christian household near Hollywood, but he flipped the teachings of his childhood. He moved to San Francisco and worked with prisoners, gang members, hippies, and gays and lesbians.
In late 1965, he came south to join the civil rights movement, just as many white activists were leaving it.
Fitch was soon documenting voter registration campaigns in rural Alabama, where he was struck by how poor blacks were defying the burdens of history.
Whites in a black movement
By 1966, many of the Mississippi marchers openly questioned the role of whites in a black movement. As it moved south, the march dramatised this tension, especially when Stokely Carmichael famously called for “Black Power”, a slogan that provoked the anxieties of liberals and the scorn of conservatives.
But the tall, blonde, blue-eyed Fitch kept supporting the cause. While photographers for the wire services stayed on a press truck and trained their lenses on King, Fitch walked the highways, wove through the marchers, and captured genuine interactions with local people – showing, in his own way, that black lives matter.
In 2013 Fondren’s descendants invited Fitch to their family reunion in Millington, Tennessee. He fielded questions from El’s grandchildren, shared his stories, ate pie, and signed copies of his famous photo.
“It seemed like he was part of the family,” said James “Skip” Fondren, the reunion’s historian. “He gave us more than we gave him.”
The town squares of Mississippi are dotted with monuments to Confederate soldiers, enduring symbols of white supremacy. It was Bob Fitch’s dream that one day Mississippi would raise a statue of El Fondren – a bronze one, modelled on his favourite photograph, conveying a new narrative of southern history, illustrating the real meaning of democracy.
Aram Goudsouzian is chair of the Department of History at the University of Memphis and author of Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.