Flip Schulke, 77; Photographer Acclaimed For Coverage of Civil Rights Movement

Flip Schulke, 77, a photographer whose arresting images of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. became icons of an era, died May 15 of congestive heart failure at Columbia Hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla.
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Flip Schulke, 77, a photographer whose arresting images of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. became icons of an era, died May 15 of congestive heart failure at Columbia Hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Mr. Schulke also shot memorable photographs of the boxer Muhammad Ali, pre-Castro Cuba and Fidel Castro, eight presidents and the early astronauts.

He was one of the first photographers allowed inside the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His photo of the stacked boxes at the window where Lee Harvey Oswald presumably shot the president was one of the defining images of the tragedy.

Mr. Schulke's work appeared in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Look, Sports Illustrated and numerous other publications, as well as in seven books, three of which documented his coverage of the civil rights movement.

He first met King in 1958 while on assignment for Ebony magazine. The young Alabama minister, already a national figure, was addressing a rally at a black Baptist church in Miami.

After the event, Mr. Schulke approached King and asked him a few questions about his writings. The civil rights leader invited Mr. Schulke to the private home where he was staying, and the two men, both in their late 20s, stayed up most of the night talking about civil rights. The conversation launched a relationship that lasted until King's death in 1968.

"Outside of my immediate family," Mr. Schulke wrote, "his was the greatest friendship I have ever known or experienced."

Mr. Schulke amassed a personal catalogue of more than a half-million photographs, including 11,000 images of King and the civil rights era. Now housed at the Center for American History of the University of Texas at Austin, it is the largest private collection of civil rights images in the world. Many were taken on assignment for Life magazine, although Mr. Schulke was never a staff photographer.

"When I was photographing civil rights," he told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1995, "I knew that was history. I was aware enough not to sign any contracts giving up the copyright of my pictures."

Graeme Phelps Schulke was born June 24, 1930, in St. Paul, Minn., where he earned his nickname while competing on the trampoline for his high school gymnastics team. He sold his first photographs at age 17 -- images he had taken of a New Ulm, Minn., parade with his first camera, a Baby Brownie Special. After serving in the Army during the Korean War, he returned to Minnesota and received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Macalester College in 1954.

He moved to Florida that same year to teach at the University of Miami and to begin his career as a freelance photographer. By 1956, he was covering the growing civil rights movement for Ebony and selling photos to Life. It was dangerous work, even for a white photographer.

Mr. Schulke was threatened by white mobs, tear-gassed by police and locked in squad cars so he couldn't document demonstrations. He usually rented Cadillacs while on assignment in the South, he said, because they were heavy and could outrun the old pickup trucks favored by Ku Klux Klan members.

In the fall of 1962, he was in Oxford, Miss., where James Meredith was attempting to enroll as the first black student at the University of Mississippi. With federal marshals confronting an angry white mob, Mr. Schulke got onto campus hidden in the trunk of a professor's car. A fellow photographer was shot and killed by a sniper, shortly after Mr. Schulke urged him to take cover.

On Aug. 28, 1963, when more than 200,000 people converged on Washington for one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in American history, Mr. Schulke documented the marchers arriving at Union Station and then went to the top of the Washington Monument to shoot the massed crowd. Later in the day, he made his way to a spot near the podium at the Lincoln Memorial and shot images of his friend delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech.

A year later, Mr. Schulke took pictures of the King family at home in Atlanta, after the civil rights leader won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1965, he was with King during the famous Selma, Ala., march, when several protesters were severely beaten by police. King had invited him to photograph the planning session for the march.

As Mr. Schulke recalled for the Sun-Sentinel, a prominent civil rights leader in the meeting questioned the presence of a white man.

"I have known this man for years," King told his colleague replied. "I don't care if Flip is purple with yellow polka dots, he is a human being and I know him better than I know a lot of black people. I trust him. He stays and that's it."

When the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, invited Mr. Schulke to Atlanta to document the funeral and the family gathering. His photograph of the grieving widow, her face partially obscured by a black veil, made the cover of Life and was named portrait of the year.

After King's assassination, Mr. Schulke found it difficult to cover the civil rights movement. He turned to other photographic interests, including auto racing, the Berlin Wall and underwater photography, often with French explorer Jacques Cousteau.

A pioneer in the technology of underwater photographic technology, Mr. Schulke perfected lenses that eliminated most of the optical distortion produced by the wide-angle lenses normally used for underwater shots.

He moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., after his house in Miami was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Mr. Schulke's marriages to Marlene Schulke, Pauline Schulke and Debra Lex ended in divorce. His marriage to Donna L. Schulke, his wife of 17 years, ended in divorce this month.

Survivors include four children from his first marriage, Robin Chisholm-Seymour of Alpharetta, Ga., Paul Schulke of Yardville, N.J., Lisa Davidson of San Francisco and Maria Cohen of Orlando; two stepsons, Joe Toreno of Los Angeles and John Toreno of Miami; a sister; and six grandchildren.

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