Civil Rights Press Prints

/ Spotlight on the Collection

Unknown photographer, Montgomery, Alabama—Negroes Seek Admission to All-White School, 1954, gelatin silver print, Museum purchase 2011.51
Unknown photographer, Montgomery, Alabama—Negroes Seek Admission to All-White School, 1954, gelatin silver print, Museum purchase 2011.51

When the Associated Press (AP) launched its wirephoto network in 1935, images for publication in newspapers and magazines were suddenly transmitted over telephone lines. The dissemination and reproduction of photographs became faster and easier through these press prints, redefining how people experienced news events. This technology allowed Americans to see as well as read about the Civil Rights Movement, and it shapes how the Birmingham Museum of Art presents civil rights photography in our galleries. An important area of collecting for the Museum, our largest holdings of civil rights photographs are press prints. At least two of these images are always being shown in the Museum’s American art galleries. Currently two photographs from the 1950s are on view: Montgomery, Alabama—Negroes Seek Admission to All-White School and Little Rock, Arkansas—Integration Boosters. Through these images and their context as press photographs, we tell stories from the civil rights era.

Unknown photographer, Little Rock, Arkansas—Integration Boosters, 1958, gelatin silver print, Museum purchase 2011.54
Unknown photographer, Little Rock, Arkansas—Integration Boosters, 1958, gelatin silver print, Museum purchase 2011.54

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional when it decided Brown v. Board of Education in May of 1954. This decision was a turning point in the fight for civil rights. In increasing numbers, black Americans began to seek admission to the school of their choice. When students were denied admission to Montgomery’s William R. Harrison Elementary School in September 1954, a press photograph of the students being turned away by the school’s white principal ran in newspapers from Alabama to Michigan. Images like these invigorated advocates for equality, even as they stirred some white Americans to oppose desegregation.

Equality in education remained a consistent theme in press photographs as the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum after the Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education. In Little Rock, Arkansas—Integration Boosters, an African American family encourages voters to support integration of their school district one year after the state was shaken by violence surrounding the desegregation of Central High School by the Little Rock Nine. This photograph and Montgomery, Alabama—Negroes Seek Admission to All-White School shaped the early Civil Rights Movement and Americans’ evolving ideas about race by giving the struggle for civil rights a national platform.