On the civil rights trail with Bob Fitch

El Fondren, © Bob Fitch, all rights reserved.

In Bob Fitch’s photo of El Fondren, the 106-year-old man who registered to vote for the first time in 1966 in Mississippi has his hand raised triumphantly in the air as the crowd hoists him up. Alongside it one also sees the hands of reporters — holding out microphones, snapping photographs, trying to capture the scene for the evening news, grasping for access to El Fondren — and they are all white.

Like many others who documented the civil rights era, Bob Fitch, now 72, was a white man covering a black people’s movement. But unlike many mainstream-media reporters, in his mind this was not just another job. Fitch was a principal photojournalist for the African-American press. He had been hired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference to provide coverage for outlets across the country who could not risk sending one of their own reporters because the risks for black journalists were too high.

This job meant not only photographing King, the movement’s most prominent leader, but also capturing everyday life among Southern blacks as they built a grassroots movement for freedom. Rather than simply viewing this work as an “assignment,” Fitch — the son of a Christian ethicist — pursued it as a spiritual mission. Documenting the civil rights movement was Fitch’s way of actualizing what he saw as the cornerstone of religion: a commitment to social justice.

Fitch’s career has been propelled by a desire to not simply observe social justice movements from afar, but to be immersed in them, working alongside people who are dedicated to changing society. Some of the most iconic photos of the American civil rights movement, and other movements since, are his. Fitch’s 1966 photo of Dr. King in his Atlanta office, with Gandhi’s portrait nearby, is the basis for the recently-inaugurated King memorial in Washington, D.C. But, perhaps more importantly, Fitch’s work directly contributed to the struggle for racial equality by providing black news agencies with reliable information and images that depicted the progress of their movement.

After King’s death, and after Fitch had photographed his funeral, he continued photographing the foot soldiers of social justice, including the Catholic Worker movement, the United Farmworkers, the anti-Vietnam and draft-resistance movements, and more. As he had with civil rights, Fitch worked for the organizations he was documenting, which kept him close to the people doing the everyday, nitty-gritty work of social change.

Even in his 70s, Fitch is unstoppable. When we spoke recently over the phone, he emphasized that he carries on that work today in Watsonville, California, where he resides and works for Latino immigrants’ rights. His journey as a photojournalist has also been a pilgrimage toward a world in which ordinary working people — whom Fitch sees as the real heroes of social change — receive recognition for their struggles and sacrifices. At the end of our conversation, Fitch seemed keen to discuss today’s Occupy movement. Before we got off the phone, with a sense of hope in younger generations, Fitch told me to continue the work — as King had once said to him in a vision. I hung up thinking of what Fitch had captured, of lives risked and lost so that a 106-year-old black man could vote, and wondering whether Occupy Wall Street’s archives would one day boast an image like this.

What motivated you to begin documenting social movements?

I always worked for the organizations I was documenting. Early on I worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and more recently I photographed an electoral campaign in the emerging Latino community in California. I worked as the photographer of Luis Alejo, who was elected the state assembly member for our district.

While I have been employed occasionally by magazines and newspapers, I am always an ally of the cause in which I believed. The root of that goes back, I would say, ironically, to my conservative Christian upbringing. My father was an oft-quoted conservative professor of Christian ethics. I personally tossed most of his institutionalized and ritualistic beliefs, but I was deeply moved by a few sections in the New Testament, such as the Beatitudes of Jesus: someone’s hungry, duh, feed them. If they need clothing, give them clothing — duh. If they are lonely, they need company, be company — duh. Those very simple words and the words of “treat others the way you want to be treated” had a profound impact on me as a kid and drew me toward issues of injustice.

On top of being raised by a conservative family — which was a very unemotional family, very cold, with no hugging and not a lot of laughter — I spent my high school and junior high school years in Berkeley in the 1950s. At that time, Berkeley was the nesting ground for socially committed people who had bailed out of the autocratic culture of the communist and socialist parties. So, in spite of my parents’ inclinations, I grew up in this community of socialists and communists, who started the co-ops in Berkeley, who started KPFA, the first community-supported radio station in the U.S., with whom I sang in song circles every month at the home of this old lady, Malvina Reynolds, who wrote great songs but had a terrible voice. And once in a while this tall skinny kid with a banjo — Pete Seeger — or this huge black woman with a powerful voice — Odetta Holmes — would come and sing with us.

Unlike my own family, which was cool and cold, the empathy and warmth and acceptance of that community was quite overpowering. My self-created Berkeley family was also receptive to my ideas about social justice. So, it was there that I was nourished in my teen years. I worked at KPFA as a volunteer, and we had very radical and exciting programs; it was a very exciting community. That was my springboard.

How did those experiences in Berkeley end up affecting your outlook?

To give you an idea of how high I jumped — when I was age six, ten years before then, I had been asked by my Presbyterian church to go home and write about things for which I was thankful. And as a very young child I wrote a prayer which said, “Thank you God that I’m a boy, thank you God that I’m white, thank you God that I’m born in America, thank you God I live in Eagle Rock which is near Hollywood.”

So, I had, at a very young age — which I believe is true for most kids — a very clear sense of my entitlement. But by the time I was 16 I’d been exposed to an entirely different environment and had taken some grasp of my own internal beliefs about justice and what fairness is. Throughout my life I have almost always had leaders and bosses who were women and men of color, and they turned out to be my mentors and heroes. Were I to write a prayer today, I would give thanks for those leaders, mentors and communities to which I was introduced by my Berkeley family.

But religion remained important — you went on to become a minister.

After college, I went on and trained to be a clergyman at a liberal theological seminary, Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. I enrolled not really because of the gospel or the theology but because of the fieldwork. I worked in juvenile halls, I worked in rural communities, I was one of the first interns for the brand-new Glide Foundation, which transformed from an old, Evangelical Methodist church to an inner-city organizing center. I lived and worked with gangs in the Mission district of San Francisco. I worked with the gay, lesbian and transsexual empowerment movements in San Francisco. In those seminary years, thanks to their outreach, I was exposed to, embraced and learned from a wide range of life.

Also, for about four or five years, I brought a lot of speakers from the black civil rights movement to the Bay Area, sent workers to the South and developed a series of strong friendships with people working in the movement. My opinion was then, and is now, that the best thing to do was not spend money for personal trips but send the cost-of-travel money to the organization, and let them decide how to spend it.

So work for the cause from wherever you are and send them your travel money?

Well, I’ve gone when I’ve been invited. It’s better to support the people there in the community doing the work than it is to go down and check it out as a stranger; some call this “zoo tripping.” After five years of supporting civil rights work I was invited to be the permanent SCLC staff photographer. I had finished college and graduate school; I’d done everything my parents wanted me to do, so now — what do I want to do?

Two years before graduation I had a strange vision. I had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time straight through one night and early morning. At the end of that reading I was entranced; I had a vision of myself being engaged with what I had encountered in the book in some sort of aesthetic manner. I didn’t know what that meant. I decided the next morning that the “aesthetic” would not be writing — writing’s too hard — and it wouldn’t be as a painterly artist — I couldn’t draw for shit — but maybe photography, since I had developed those skills as a hobby. A year and a half later, or two, I was invited to be photojournalist for King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was just after the Selma march, and everybody had left just when workers were needed for the first viable electoral voter rights and election campaigns.

When you say “everybody had left,” do you mean the activists, or the media, or both?

Well, not completely everybody. But after Selma, and the new Voting Rights Act, the work that remained was drudgery — knocking on doors, phone-calling, driving, teaching, education. And that big crowd that marched to Montgomery didn’t stay for the drudgery.

Local organizations needed people to do that work of finding candidates, training candidates, supporting candidates, through the whole election process. There were roughly 50 African-American candidates for various offices in Alabama in ’66. That meant a lot of work.

There’s a certain kind of irony — I mentioned the Latino campaigns in Watsonville, where I live now. Watsonville reminds me of some of the work in Alabama because it is an 80-percent Latino community, and we’re transitioning from an agro-business, Anglo, old-guard power structure to a more representative government. We’re knocking on doors, we’re making phone calls, we’re getting people to the polls, we’re training and running empowerment campaigns. By “we,” I mean a progressive coalition of multi-age, multi-ethnic people — and the drudgery work is much the same as the black civil rights campaigns.

How did you come to be the person that the SCLC invited to document them?

I was told, “Bob, we can’t send African-American journalists and photographers into the field ’cause they’ll get beat up and killed, so we’re going to send your little white ass out there. Every week you’ll come back with a news story in print and photos, and you’ll send them to the major black print media around the nation.” There were at that time about 20 major African-American newspapers all the way from Oakland to Harlem to Chicago to Atlanta.

So I took the photos, wrote the notes, typed up an article, mimeographed the article, developed the film, printed the pictures, addressed the envelope, put the story and the photos in the envelope, bought stamps and put them on the envelopes, and sent it off. It was me. I was the Afro wire service! By then, the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) photographers’ group that emerged out of the Mississippi Summer pretty much diminished — so, at that time, I was the only movement photographer in the field.

Sounds like a lot of work — but what did it entail?

SCLC would announce a list of the African-American candidates running for office and declare that a picture of all candidates and their families was needed for leaflets to be distributed in local communities. I would go hunt down farms with no address, people who were in the fields or teaching at schools or an attorney, and take pictures, and get those back to Atlanta and develop those. That was a typical assignment.

We had another campaign where we were identifying contemporary lynching: African-American people who were killed because they had crossed the cultural line, in some manner, by not smiling at whites, or resisting in a march or demonstration. We had 16 of those murders in Alabama in one year, in 1966, and I simply followed through to photograph and write on those as they came up.

A photojournalist knows that three-quarters of the work is waiting, or getting there, and planning or re-planning, double-checking supplies and schedules. My entrée into the situation was very simple. All I had to say was “I’m Dr. King’s photographer,” and it opened doors in the black community — or shut doors in the Anglo community — or evoked a response that generated significant word and photo content.

Martin Luther King, Jr., © Bob Fitch, all rights reserved.

Berkeley had a powerful impact on you personally. Did working in the South have a different sort of impact?

The experience in the black civil rights movement set up my life. After Dr. King was murdered, and after I went back to Atlanta to photograph the funeral at the invitation of his family, I returned to the Bay Area. I went to a retreat on racism where blacks and whites were meeting to see what programs they could come up with. It got very contentious, and it was fueled by alcohol, and I didn’t like the mood. So I went out and sat on a log in the forest. And there in the wilderness, a very strange thing happened: Dr. King appeared to me! He was as real as the lamp that’s two feet from my eyes right now. I don’t believe in ghosts, nor do I really believe in the afterlife. But he was there, and he spoke to me and said, in his deep voice, “Bob, continue the work!” Then he left.

Wow. What do you think caused you to see him in that way? It sounds like you needed inspiration to keep going after he was gone.

I don’t know where it came from. It may have come from inside me. But the next day I began to think, Okay, the people I most follow and respect are being jailed and killed. It’s important to document their work and their workers. I made a list, which at that time included Chavez, who was emerging with United Farmworkers Union; David Harris who was a leader of the West Coast anti-Vietnam draft resistance movement along with his partner Joan Baez; Daniel and Phil Berrigan, two of the Catonsville Nine who were part of the war resistance movement on the East Coast; Dorothy Day, titular parent of the anarchist nonviolent Catholic Worker movement; Pete Seeger, who has been the life affirming “bishop,” spiritual guide and mentor for all us Anglos for decades; and Ron Dellums in Alameda County who was running for Congress with the endorsement of Coretta King — kind of a first post-King’s-death political connection.

I had this list of figures — some well-known, some not — and I literally mapped out how to connect with them, how to begin the work, how to fund the work. I acted as advised: to “continue the work” right up to today’s community campaigns for social justice.

Has anyone else inspired you the way King did?

I’ll tell you a story. I was in Eutaw, Alabama, photographing a segregated Anglo high school. Stepped out of my car, took the photograph. A cop car pulls up behind me, four cops got out and grabbed me, saying, “You’re going to jail.” I asked, “For what?” They said, “Trespassing — you stepped on the lawn.” So I was in jail four days before they even let me make a phone call, and finally they opened the cell to release me. It was one of these old jails where the bars clang — I hate that sound. And they said, “Bail’s made, you can go.”

I looked at the documents to see who would put up their own property to bail my ass out of jail. Maybe Andrew Young, who was the field organizer — no, his name’s not there. Maybe Hosea Williams, my immediate boss — no, his name was not there. The names that were on that bail document all had the same last name, probably three brothers — Kirksey, a local family in Alabama, farmers whom I had never even met. They put up their precious land to get my white ass outta jail. And I had an immediate flash, a kind of experience I’ve had many times, but at that time a lightening bolt of consciousness.

Whereas King and Stokley Carmichael and Floyd McKisick all appeared to be heroes, they stood on a scaffold of Afro-American property owners, workers and families who maintained their hope and values for roughly 350 years prior to the emergence of the civil rights movement. My heroes were the Kirkseys, and today, my heroes are communities of people like them.

I was loved and inspired by Dr. King. He was a brother and a friend. But the real heroes for me have always been those people who nickel-and-dime for their community organizations, who build that scaffold which promotes and allows the historical justice movements.

So here I am again in Watsonville, a member of a progressive democratic coalition whose members are those people — cooks, parents, lawyers. They run emergency shelters, they’re political officers, they drive trucks, they work in the fields — and they are my heroes. I try to choose heroes who are not people I couldn’t be. King really was a genius, or David Harris, an extraordinary tactician. I’d rather have heroes whose lives I can emulate.

Of all your photos, do you have a favorite? 

The photo I took in 1966 of the 106-year-and-9-month-old man who registered to vote for the first time. It was during the Mississippi Meredith March, named after James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi, where the words “black power” were first used. This was in Batesville. El Fondren, this man, was probably born in slavery, so imagine the courageous fullness of his experience, from that slavery to registering to vote in the same lifetime — he survived it all. When I was photographing — I photographed him registering to vote, and then we came outside, and the crowd threw him on their shoulders — I had a moment I’ve experienced a few times, where the image was such a perfect representation of all I was feeling at the time, I disappeared!

The only way I can describe it is in mystic terms: I became one with all. I photographed automatically for the few moments it took me to get through the roll of film. And whenever I have that experience, the photos always turn out very well. El Fondren was not only a hero, not only engaged in a courageous act of personal empowerment; he did that with his community — those people who threw him on their shoulders. That moment for me was the life and work we must nourish and continue.

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