Correction to This Article
The documentary "Charles Moore: I Fight With My Camera," cited in Mr. Moore's obituary March 16, was released in 2005, not 1995.

Charles Moore, 79, dies; photographed civil rights violence

By Patricia Sullivan
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Charles Moore, 79, whose searing Life magazine photographs of the civil rights struggle helped change American public opinion about the movement, died March 11 at a nursing home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. He had kidney disease and other illnesses.

His photos of patrol officers roughing up the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., snarling police dogs attacking protesters, white civilians and police beating black demonstrators and the fierce spray of fire hoses pinning a trio of teenagers against a brick-walled building shocked the nation's conscience when the images began appearing in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

"The photographs of Bull Connor's police dogs lunging at the marchers in Birmingham did as much as anything to transform the national mood and make legislation not just necessary . . . but possible," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once said. Jacob Javits, the former Republican senator from New York, said Mr. Moore's photos "helped to spur passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Traveling throughout the South, often with writer Michael S. Durham, Mr. Moore documented the violence and hope of the civil rights movement from 1958 until 1965. A piece of hurled concrete injured him in Birmingham, Ala., but he kept shooting. He was thrown in jail with a dozen angry white men who had been locked up for vagrancy and drunkenness. Enraged whites forced their way into his motel room at the University of Mississippi, where he had gone to cover the enrollment of James Meredith, the school's first black student, and began pounding on the former Golden Gloves boxer.

"I've never seen such hate in anyone's face before," he later said, according to John Kaplan, a professor at the University of Florida, who wrote his master's degree project on Mr. Moore. "It was like I were vermin."

At the time, half of the adults in the United States read Life magazine and its photography was world-renowned. Mr. Moore shot multiple cover photos and photo spreads that brought the civil rights struggle into starkly personal focus. His graphic coverage of the 1963 riots in Birmingham was spread over 11 pages, and its impact was immediate, provoking reactions from President John F. Kennedy, black activist Malcolm X and others. Artist Andy Warhol created "Mustard Race Riots," a silkscreen version of Mr. Moore's photograph of police dogs.

"In Birmingham when I saw the dogs I don't think anything appalled me more, and I've been to Vietnam," Mr. Moore told the New York Times in 1999. "I photographed it, and the world rushed in. I realized the power of even one image. . . . What changed was my awareness. I wanted to show how awful, how vulgar, how terrible this whole thing was."

Charles Lee Moore was born in Hackleburg, Ala., and grew up in Tuscumbia, Ala., the son of a Baptist minister who did not believe in racial epithets. Mr. Moore served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a photographer and attended the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. He returned to his native state in 1957 to work at a portrait studio, and soon made his way to the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser.

He quickly met King at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. "I photographed him at the pulpit with a cross behind his head. I got down low to get the power of this man," Mr. Moore told Kaplan. "From then on, I wanted to cover him. I wanted every assignment I could get."

"I did not know at the time my pictures might make a difference. But I knew this man would make a difference," Mr. Moore said in the 1995 documentary "Charles Moore: I Fight with My Camera."

Mr. Moore was the only photographer on hand in 1958 when King was arrested after trying to attend a court hearing for his aide Ralph Abernathy. He jumped behind a police booking station counter to shoot a photo of King being manhandled by the police. The photograph went out on the Associated Press wires, and Life magazine included it in its next issue, launching his career.

He told The Washington Post about another incident in Montgomery a few years later. "I saw the guy pull that bat out of a bag. I shot while I was still running. I got three or four quick shots off. He's swinging that bat at that woman, right at her head. If you look closely, someone else has a thick chain and maybe a Coke or beer bottle.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company