A King remembrance in black and white
Civil rights photographer Bob Fitch honored at Stanford for capturing the freedom movement
The faces staring out from 10 photographs at Stanford's Tresidder Memorial Union lounge seem eternal; as alive today as they were 46 years ago when photojournalist Bob Fitch took them in 1966 during the civil rights movement.
If the images could speak, they might scream their rage and determination; whisper their hope and shout their jubilation in the silent lounge.
An angry white sheriff slaps a black minister's face; a 106-year-old man born into slavery is celebrated as he registers to vote for the first time; a 14-year-old girl leads protesters in song against a line of white police officers and Ku Klux Klansmen.
Fitch, 72, was a Bay Area-raised, 24-year-old ordained minister who took a job as a staff photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Martin Luther King Jr. was president. Over three years Fitch shot hundreds of memorable images of black Americans' struggles.
On Friday afternoon (Jan. 13) Fitch will be honored with a Call to Consciousness Award from the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University. A King photograph by Fitch is the model for the new King memorial at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which was unveiled last summer.
Clayborne Carson, institute director, worked on the memorial's design with San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group. He chose Fitch's photo, which was taken in Atlanta as King worked on one of his books, because it portrayed King not as a monumental figure but as a thoughtful leader, he said.
In the photograph, King is holding a pen and with his arms crossed as he contemplates his writing. A picture of nonviolent leader Mohandas Gandhi hangs on the wall above King's desk.
Fitch's photos and four posters with his images will remain on view through February, along with an original page from King's 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.
Fitch found his way into the remarkable position of staff photographer after getting to know Southern civil rights leaders. At the time he was bringing speakers to Bay Area churches.
Photography had been an early interest that Fitch said was like "magic." As a youth he was fascinated by images that emerged on paper soaked in a chemical bath.
He arrived in the South in 1965 after the Selma-to-Montgomery March.
"Most Anglos from the north stayed two months then split. I dedicated to stay a year or two," he said.
He grew up in a college-campus environment and was not exposed to African Americans, he said. But he was introduced early to social-justice issues while growing up in Berkeley around socialist and communist progressive thought — ideas that related to the working class, immigration and minorities, he said. That interest grew while attending a Protestant seminary.
Fitch was able to go where black journalists could not. Southern Christian Leadership Conference leaders said they could not send black reporters and photographers into the field because they were beaten or killed. Fitch covered major events each week, and the images and stories were sent to a network of black-run newspapers and magazines, he said.
He discovered his lifetime heroes during the civil rights movement, he said.
"Dr. King was an enunciator for the movement, but he was not my hero," Fitch said by phone Monday. It was the bravery of the common people, such as the Kirkseys, three black farmers in Utah, Ala., that was heroic, he said.
At great risk, the three farmers bailed Fitch out of jail. Each day, Fitch learned more about the heritage of hope, justice and liberty of black families that had been ongoing for 450 years, he said.
"I learned nonviolence not from texts; I learned nonviolence from Afro-American men and women who were enraged and for whom a stance of nonviolence was an effort. To take a stance of nonviolence in the face of that crushing oppression was a courageous act," he said.
El Fondren, the 106-year-old man in his voter-registration photo, is one such example, he said.
"He was born into slavery. He survived enormous oppression that is inconceivable to most of us," Fitch said.
The image of Fondren being lifted onto shoulders, with his hand waving in triumph with others' silhouetted in the foreground, is still prominent in his home and has special significance, he said. It was one of several times in his photographic career when, he said, he experienced a mystic vision.
"The image in the camera frame so perfectly enunciated all the feelings I have at that time that I disappear. I'm automatically photographing, and I kind of become at one with the organic earth. All of those photos have been stunning," he said.
Hope was perhaps the feeling Fitch captured most in the Tresidder images: A woman guiding an illiterate man's hand as he learned to write in preparation for his voter registration; a portrait of a sharecropper couple in their cramped home on a white sheriff's land, for whom protest meant risking everything.
Fitch was asked by King's family to photograph the slain leader's funeral, and his image of the tear-stained faces of King's parents brings his chronicle of the movement to a close. But he continued to record social-justice movements, including the United Farmworkers Union (AFL-CIO), the Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement and the Vietnam War protests.
His photograph of Cesar Chavez was issued as a U.S. postage stamp in 2002 — albeit without the original red UFW flag.
He spent years working for the California Department of Housing and developed the statewide Emergency Housing Shelter Program. He is still active in community-empowerment programs in Watsonville, where he lives, and manages his photo archives. Fitch plans to donate his collection to the Stanford University Library, Carson said.
And he continues to document social, peace and justice actions. His current focus is on local politician state Assemblyman Luis Alejo, the son of farmworkers. Fitch has high hopes for Alejo as a prominent voice of a new generation of civil rights activists.
"He is as good an organizer as King or Chavez," he said.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.