CULTURE & ARTS

In Case You Forgot, This Is What The North's Fight For Civil Rights Looked Like

A photo of civil rights advocates picketing next to the American Nazi Party puts our country's current politics into sharp relief.

To some, the fight for civil rights in America is an important, but distant, memory.

According to history books, the struggle to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States seems complete ― the movement we study ended, scholars write, in 1968, the year President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of housing. But as many, many recent events make clear ― from murders of young black men at the hands of police to a troubling increase in reported hate crimes, the survival of the KKK to the rise of Black Lives Matter ― the fight for civil rights never really came to a close.

A new book titled North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South, not only aims to remind America that the protests geared toward combatting racial injustice today are hardly removed from the efforts of activists 50 years ago. But also that the friction between civil rights advocates and those who opposed them were never the primary problem of the South. While famous photographers have long focused on those cities plagued by prejudice below the Mason-Dixon Line, historian Mark Speltz is highlighting the images that memorialize the work of progressive freedom fighters in the North.

Activists picketing at a demonstration for housing equality while uniformed American Nazi Party members counterprotest in the
Activists picketing at a demonstration for housing equality while uniformed American Nazi Party members counterprotest in the background with signs displaying anti-integration slogans and racist epithets.

In one particularly resonant image from North of Dixie, a group of picketers advocating for housing equality can be seen peacefully protesting while a group of American Nazi Party members nearby raise signs portraying racial epithets and anti-integration slogans. While a casual viewer might assume such a scene took place in a Southern state more widely prosecuted for its racist past, this photo was taken by Charles Britten in Los Angeles, California, in 1963.

Given the present-day rise of the so-called “alt-right,” a group whose core belief is that “white identity” is under attack, Britten’s juxtaposition of protesters ― one side fighting for equality for all, the other demanding that only white rights be prioritized ― takes on new meaning. A snapshot by an unknown photographer in 1963 captured a similarly disconcerting sight: a group of young white boys passionately threatening a black family new to the neighborhood. That neighborhood was in Washington, D.C. 

Mob shouting obscenities, threatening a young black family as it moves into an all-white development outside Philadelphia jus
Mob shouting obscenities, threatening a young black family as it moves into an all-white development outside Philadelphia just two days after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The family spent its first night in the cellar and, after two years of relentless attacks, moved out of the neighborhood.

North of Dixie is a stunning compilation of photos, combining images of strength and reserve evident in activists in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Los Angeles with images of the backlash they faced. For every shot of a woman raising her fist during an open-housing march, there is documentation of protesters being dragged out of demonstrations unwillingly. For every portrait of picketers standing up against the unfair hiring policies of Yellow Cab, there is a picture of armed Black Panthers, a group disproportionately characterized as violent in a time when so many black Americans feared for their lives.

Below is but a selection of the 100 black-and-white images featured in Speltz’s book:

A young woman raising her fist in a show of pride and determination during an open-housing march through the streets of Chica
A young woman raising her fist in a show of pride and determination during an open-housing march through the streets of Chicago.
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of tear gas or swinging clubs are present in these scenes outside the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, but Brittin’s tight focus immediately draws viewers into one of the most dramatic struggles he documented for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality).
Members of the St. Louis Branch of the NAACP calling for victory at home and abroad and an end to racial violence.
Members of the St. Louis Branch of the NAACP calling for victory at home and abroad and an end to racial violence.
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of tear gas or swinging clubs are present in these scenes outside the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, but Brittin’s tight focus immediately draws viewers into one of the most dramatic struggles he documented for CORE.
NAACP members during a "Don’t Ride" campaign urging riders to boycott Yellow Cab and help stop hiring discrimination.
NAACP members during a "Don’t Ride" campaign urging riders to boycott Yellow Cab and help stop hiring discrimination.
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of tear gas or swinging clubs are present in these scenes outside the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, but Brittin’s tight focus immediately draws viewers into one of the most dramatic struggles he documented for CORE.
Boy picketing outside a local school, one of the many children from coast to coast who would play a critical role during the
Boy picketing outside a local school, one of the many children from coast to coast who would play a critical role during the civil rights era to advance the struggle for racial justice.
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of
Protesters being physically removed during a demonstration against the shocking violence in Selma in March 1965. No clouds of tear gas or swinging clubs are present in these scenes outside the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, but Brittin’s tight focus immediately draws viewers into one of the most dramatic struggles he documented for CORE.
News media interviewing CORE activists waging a sit-in and hunger strike outside the Los Angeles Board of Education offices t
News media interviewing CORE activists waging a sit-in and hunger strike outside the Los Angeles Board of Education offices to raise awareness of segregation and inequality in the public schools.
Armed members of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party standing on the state capitol steps protesting a proposed law
Armed members of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party standing on the state capitol steps protesting a proposed law limiting the ability to carry firearms in a manner manifesting an intent to intimidate others.
Demonstrators sitting with signs and intentionally blocking traffic during protest on car-lined thoroughfare.
Demonstrators sitting with signs and intentionally blocking traffic during protest on car-lined thoroughfare.

North of Dixie, published by The Getty, includes more photos by Bob Adelman, Charles Brittin, Diana Davies, Leonard Freed, Gordon Parks, and Art Shay. It is available via The Getty Store.

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