On May 3, 1963, escalating racial tensions came to a violent head when black activists clashed with city authorities in Birmingham, Alabama.
Bruce Davidson of Magnum Photos was among the photographers on the scene. The demonstrations produced some of the most iconic images of the civil rights movement.
“It was important for me to be there, stay close and observe,” says Davidson, now 79.
Photographs and video of black youths and nonviolent protesters being beaten by police and sprayed with high-power fire hoses landed in homes across the country. As a result, the tide began to change.
Before then, the Birmingham campaign had been struggling to gain ground. The movement, organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, began quietly in April.
A month later, they were trying a new approach. They enlisted the help of hundreds of children for a march against segregation, later called the Children’s Crusade.
“I stayed away from the police and made myself as invisible as I possibly could,” Davidson says. “I didn’t have a telephoto lens with me that day, but fortunately, I was very swift and I could run in, take the picture and disappear.”
He listened to King and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth address an overflowing congregation at the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Then he witnessed a tipping point, when fire hoses and police dogs were turned on protesters in the streets of Birmingham. The charge was led by Eugene "Bull" Connor, the city’s public safety commissioner.
“What impressed me most about the climate at that time is that people were confronting the police, and they were not taking it laying down any longer,” Davidson says. “And there was defiance that was bound to grow.”
The violence and racial discrimination did not immediately end or even lessen after Birmingham, but before then, many didn’t realize just how bad things were for blacks in the South.
A settlement between the opposing sides in Birmingham was reached on May 9, and segregation laws were rolled back in the city. Ten months, later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. The Voting Rights Act was approved the next year.
The widespread coverage of the events in Birmingham helped inform public opinion and bring national attention to the struggle for equal rights.
“I just stayed within the moment and ready to record events,” Davidson says humbly.
More of his photographs of the civil rights movement from 1961 to 1965 can be seen in the book “Time of Change.”
- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN