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Turning the Lens on Civil Rights Childhood

A girl looks directly at the photographer. From Today, Child Development Group of Mississippi, 1965. McCain Library Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. (Figure 3.1 from Civil Rights Childhood. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

A girl looks directly at the photographer. From Today, Child Development Group of Mississippi, 1965. McCain Library Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. (Figure 3.1 from Civil Rights Childhood. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

Ralph Hattersley, noted author and teacher of photography, said of his lifelong passion: “We are making photographs to understand what our lives mean to us.”

In her new book Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (University of Minnesota Press, 2014), Katharine Capshaw examines the importance of children’s photographic books and the image of the black child in social justice campaigns for school integration and the civil rights movement in a way that Hattersley would appreciate.

Capshaw, an associate professor of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says she began studying children’s photobooks and their impact on the civil rights movement after completing her award-winning book Children’s Literature of the Harlem Renaissance (Indiana University Press, 2004), which won the 2006 Children’s Literature Association award for best scholarly book.

“I got interested in the range of photographs of black children that were used during the civil rights movement,” Capshaw says. “What immediately springs to mind for people are Emmett Till images and the photographs around the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. When you think about children in civil rights you think about the martyred child photograph. But I learned through working on this project that there were many different approaches to representing childhood during the Civil Rights Movement.”

A photo of the smiling 14-year-old Till was widely published in 1955 adjacent to another image of his disfigured and mutilated body in black newspapers and magazines. Less than a decade later, images from the 1963 bombing of the church in Birmingham, which killed four young girls, were linked to children as martyrs in the struggle for civil rights in the nation.

Capshaw traces the history of photobooks focused on black children from the 1940s, examining their use in both fiction and non-fiction. Children are seen playing, in school, and with their families. As the civil rights movement began gaining momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, its leaders began to visualize the reality of black life through the use of photographs, including the violence against children, something that would help spur activism of emerging leaders.

The ‘obedient children’ described in this image’s caption run exuberantly down the street. From Louis B. Reynolds and Charles L. Paddock, Little Journeys into Storyland: Stories That Will Live and Lift (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1947). (Figure 2.10 from Civil Rights Childhood. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

The ‘obedient children’ described in this image’s caption run exuberantly down the street. From Louis B. Reynolds and Charles L. Paddock, Little Journeys into Storyland: Stories That Will Live and Lift (Nashville: Southern Publishing Association, 1947). (Figure 2.10 from Civil Rights Childhood. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

She found that the 1956 book A Pictorial History of the Negro in America by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer is a volume that can be linked directly to inspiring social activism in a major event in the civil rights movement.

“A group of African American college freshmen were reading it in their dorm and talking about the way black people have struggled against oppression historically,” Capshaw says. “They talked about doing something to contribute to social change and they created the idea for the Woolworth counter sit-ins in response to that book. I was able to interview one of the four men that launched the sit-ins, Joseph McNeil. It was a fantastic experience to hear him talk about how that book helped change the world.”

In her research for the book, Capshaw also discovered that many of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) said that seeing the photos of Emmett Till when they were young was a factor that propelled them into activism.

“The thrust of all of the texts I study has to do with inspiring the child to take action in their communities. These books ask children to reflect on how the world sees black childhood and to respond to those representations,” she says. “The books all have that kind of participatory bent – they all call to children to get involved in the world – but A Pictorial History of the Negro is the one text that we can see particularly inspired people to take a stance.”

Capshaw says the field of children’s literature has been dominated by fiction and illustrated books, but in recent years has increasingly pursued books about children of color. One of her hopes for her book is to prompt more interest in books aimed at covering topics of diversity and photography.

The critical response to Civil Rights Childhood seems to be headed in that direction. Award-winning author Julia Mickenberg of the University of Texas at Austin described the volume as “offering original ways of thinking,” and breaking “entirely new ground” on how the photobook operated as a medium for civil rights.

An early conduct book depicts a moment of success at a spelling competition. From Silas X. Floyd, Floyd’s Flowers: Duties and Beauties for Colored Children, 1905. Reprinted as Short Stories for Colored People Both Young and Old (Washington, D.C.: Austin Jenkins Company, 1920). (Figure 2.5 from Civil Rights Childhood. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

An early conduct book depicts a moment of success at a spelling competition. From Silas X. Floyd, Floyd’s Flowers: Duties and Beauties for Colored Children, 1905. Reprinted as Short Stories for Colored People Both Young and Old (Washington, D.C.: Austin Jenkins Company, 1920). (Figure 2.5 from Civil Rights Childhood. Courtesy of University of Minnesota Press)

Capshaw notes that one of the discoveries she made while researching the book is the range of people who were involved with mobilizing photography for social change, from major figures such as Hughes, novelist Toni Morrison, and photographer Matt Herron, to previously unheralded figures such as Doris Derby, who worked with Herron on the book Today, a 1965 volume produced by the Child Development Group of Mississippi, and the eight-year-old poet Kali Grosvenor of the Black Arts Movement.

The book comes full circle in the face of history in Capshaw’s concluding chapter. Sixty years after the photos of Emmett Till appeared in the national media, there are the contrasting images of Trayvon Martin – one of a smiling child wearing a T-shirt and the other of the 17-year-old wearing a hoodie – seen nationally after he was shot and killed in Miami, Fla., by a neighborhood watch volunteer while walking home from a convenience store.

The Martin images also appear in a photo of a young African-American man holding up a poster with three of the Martin images taped together, while wearing a Hollister shirt similar to the one Martin wore during a protest. Capshaw says the contrasting representations conjured by each youngster contribute to public opinion about them.

“You can see by thinking about those four pictures [of Till and Martin] that representation matters,” she says. “Representation helps control public opinion and the conversation about black childhood’s possibilities. We are able to consider the ways that our culture imagines black youth through conflicting narratives of innocence versus aggression, of profound loss versus disposability. This protestor seems to be saying: I’m aware of how culture represents black youth, and through assembling those images, I’m saying something about the need to control and respond to these constructions.”

Capshaw sees more work to be done in the area of scholarly research on the subject.

“African-American children’s literature offers such a rich and complex history that has not been attended to in scholarship. There’s so much wonderful territory to sink into,” she says. “These poems, narratives, and picture books have been tremendously important and influential within black communities.”


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