Monday, February 27, 2006
BIRMINGHAM, Feb. 26 -- Previously unpublished photographs from the civil rights era were discovered in an equipment closet at the Birmingham News and appeared for the first time Sunday in a special section of the newspaper.
The cardboard box with thousands of negatives, marked "Keep. Do Not Sell," was discovered in November 2004 by a photo intern, Alexander Cohn, who went through the files and interviewed people in the pictures to help produce the eight-page section, "Unseen. Unforgotten."
More than 30 photos appear in the print version, with dozens more available on the newspaper's Web site at http://www.al.com/unseen , and the paper recounts its own struggle to cover the civil rights movement in a city and state dominated by segregationist politics.
News photographers from the period said the paper did not want to draw attention to the demonstrations and discord in the 1950s and 1960s.
"It was difficult for people to see," Horace Huntley, director of oral history at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the paper. "People were embarrassed by it. The city fathers were embarrassed by it."
The newspaper said that in its centennial edition in 1988, it noted that a New York Times story in 1960 forced the paper and the city's white community to confront the racial conflict. "The story of The Birmingham News' coverage of race relations in the 1960s is one marked at times by mistakes and embarrassment but, in its larger outlines, by growing sensitivity and acceptance of change," the centennial edition said.
"The editors thought if you didn't publish it, much of this would go away," said Ed Jones, 81, a photographer at the newspaper from 1942 to 1987. "Associated Press kept on wanting pictures, and the News would be slow on letting them have them, so they flooded the town with photographers. The AP started sending pictures all over, and it mushroomed."
Robert Adams, 84, a photographer who joined the newspaper in 1940 and retired in 1985, said, "I think the News as an institution did not try to inflame the situation by use of photographs or stories."
The News photographers recounted the physical dangers of covering the protests but did not see special significance when the pictures were taken.
"It's an honest record," Adams said. "There were no attempts at bias. It was a record of what happened while I was there."
"Being a photographer back then wasn't the safest thing to do," said Tom Self, 71, who joined the newspaper in 1952. "An AP photographer was up here covering the protests, and somebody shot the back window of his Volkswagen with him in it. I've had people who were on trial threaten me."
Catherine Burks Brooks, 66, a Birmingham schools substitute teacher who was part of a group of student Freedom Riders when she attended Tennessee State University, is among those who appear in the previously unpublished photographs.
"I was very, very thrilled to see that we do have them," she said. "I assumed that there were pictures because reporters and photographers were around. I knew the pictures had to exist, but they were being kept somewhere."