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Mississippi, 1962. After a long night of violence and death during the riots at the University of Mississippi, photographer Charles Moore is surrounded by empty tear gas canisters.  This photo was taken by Life reporter Bob Fellows, who was Moore's partner in covering the desegregation of Ole Miss by James Meredith.

The Civil Rights Movement
from Behind the Lens
 
An Interview with Charles Moore

by Pam Kingsbury

 

 

 

 
 

 

Charles Moore spent his formative years in North Alabama. Born in Hackleburg, he claims Tuscumbia (the birthplace of Helen Keller) as his hometown because his earliest memories are there. Currently Moore, whose career spans from the late 1950s to the present, makes his home in Florence, Alabama.

What was your childhood like?

I loved collecting arrowheads along the Tennessee River, exploring caves, hunting with homemade bows and arrows, and wrestling with the other kids. Even then, I wanted to grow up and be an adventurer.

I was a product of the Depression. My father struggled to make a living for our family. He worked as a wrestler, a Marion County policeman, and both a car and insurance salesman. During World War II, he worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority's defense plant as a guard.

My father became a Baptist minister -- not a hell and brimstone minister -- but a man of tolerance and compassion. My brother Jim and I saw our father go into the jails and pray with the inmates Sunday after Sunday. He prayed with both blacks and whites. If we ever repeated any slurs we heard on the playground, he'd tell us very softly, "I don't want to hear those words." Any success I've had I owe to my father. After my mother's death, he ensured we were surrounded by extended family and had happy childhoods. He was a wonderful man who taught by example.

Where did you learn photography?

After I graduated from Deshler High School (in Tuscumbia), I volunteered for the Marines. Then I used my G.I. benefits to attend the Brooks Institute for Photography in Santa Barbara. I thought I do something glamorous like become a fashion photographer.

Instead, I came back to Alabama and went to work for The Montgomery Advertiser in 1957. One year later, I was promoted to the position of chief photographer. The experience just turned my life around. My career was 100% different from what I intended to do. I thought I'd photograph nature and landscapes but I wound up photographing the changing of the times.

Talk about some of your early assignments for the newspaper.

I moved to Montgomery during the months following the bus boycotts started by Rosa Parks. A whole new world was opening up between blacks and whites in the city, in the South, and in this country.

I began to hear about this young dynamic minister, Martin Luther King Jr., who had been appointed to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. As the son of a Baptist minister, I was curious about this man.

Several of my assignments included covering events Dr. King was involved with. I photographed meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, demonstrations, Dr. King's arrest on September 3, 1958, the sit-ins stages by students from Alabama State (one of the historically black universities in Montgomery), and the violence surrounding them.

There was hostility surrounding doing my job.

Alabama, 1960.  Early in the movement, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta celebrate a victory in Montgomery.


Your photograph of Martin Luther King Jr.'s arrest brought your work to the national level....

On one of my days off, I had taken a photograph of Dr. King being led away from his church on Dexter Avenue which was about three blocks away from the paper. The police had just arrested and handcuffed him. The shot was picked up by wire services and became quite famous.

In 1962, when LIFE (magazine) called, I shocked my family, friends, and co-workers. I quit my job (which was unthinkable because I gave up health benefits and retirement), found an agent in New York, and became earning my living as a photojournalist.

Talk about some of your assignments ......

I went to the University of Mississippi to cover James Meredith's registration there. I convinced the marshals I was sick. They allowed me into the Lyceum where I recorded what was going on there.

I covered the Freedom March through the Southern States. I was sent to Birmingham. I photographed the protesters being blasted by hoses and police dogs threatening into the crowds. I covered the Mississippi voter registration and the Selma March. One of my all time favorite photographs was taken at the end of the Selma March -- Joan Baez was singing in front of Alabama's State Capitol. She was barefoot and had such a lovely voice ......
 

Mississippi, 1962.  Under heavy guard, James Meredith is escorted to registration at Ole Miss by Chief U.S. Marshal James McShane (left) and John Doar of the U.S. Justice Department.

How do you think your work influenced what was going on in the South and in America at the time?

The photographs were never about me. They were always about the people who were laying their lives on the line for basic civil rights. I look back and I can't believe there was ever a time in this country when ANY citizen could not vote. The times were appalling.

I'm very proud of the fact the photographs have been recognized for years.

Pictures can and do make a difference. Strong images of historical events do have an impact on society. They can help with change.

Alabama, 1963.

After being hit from behind and knocked down by a water hose, a woman is picked up and rescued by a fellow demonstrator.

 


Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore has been reissued by the University of Alabama Press. Do you feel as if your work has come full circle?

In a word, I'm ecstatic.

I'm thrilled. I love pointing out the word "Alabama" on the book's binding.

The South has always been a special place and the changes here are gratifying. In the '60s publishing work like mine in this state would have been controversial.

You're been a working photographer for portions of six decades. Who would you still like to photograph?

The first person who comes to mind is Jimmy Carter. I've always wanted to go to Plains, Georgia. I'd like to chat with and photograph him. I admire the man. I'm pleased he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Who is your favorite person you've photographed?

Gregory Peck.

When Gregory Peck came to Monroeville to do his research for the movie "To Kill A Mockingbird," he just hung out at a local diner and listened to the dialogue around him.

I photographed him in the Monroeville Courthouse and he was a wonderful guy.. Several years later, I photographed him while he was working on a space movie down in Florida -- and he still remembered me!

As a free-lancer, how do you spend your days?

I'd like to spend my days photographing! Instead, I'm working full-time keeping up with contracts, e-mails, requests from universities and museums for speaking engagements while trying to find time for photographing.

In the last year, I've had the honor of seeing my work included as a part of the International Festival of Journalism in Perpignan (France) and revisited Oxford, Mississippi as part of the forty year anniversary.

The exhibit in Perpignan was most powerful. I had the pleasure of seeing my body of work included with some of the best and most important work in the world. I was interviewed by Radio France, Paris Match, and Photo. My work hung in a 15th Century Cathedral. The organizers asked me to mingle with the crowds one day and I've never been so proud. Watching people from all over Europe studying my photographs carefully was a wonderful experience.

I was invited back to Oxford, Mississippi as part of the town's celebration of the fortieth anniversary of James Meredith's enrollment at the University. I had never been back. To go down to the Square, visit Square Books, and met Jere Hoar (author of Body Parts) was fabulous. Everybody seems to get along so well now and the place is beautiful.

There were two highlights for me. Mrs. Medgar Evers was the guest speaker and she gave an awesome, incredible speech. Her voice and message were so powerful.

And it was exciting to meet one of the U.S. Marshals who remembered me.

What's next?

I'm trying to coordinate several speaking engagements.

I hope to have a one man show in my hometown of Tuscumbia entitled "People, Places, and Personalities" in May.


View more of Charles Moore's photography of Powerful Days at:

Powerful Days: The Civil Right Photography of Charles Moore

Kodak: Powerful Days in Black and White

 

 
Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore
Photography by Charles Moore
Text by Michael S. Durham, Introduction by Andrew Young
University of Alabama Press, 2002
Trade paper, $29.95
208 Pages, 188 duotone photographs
ISBN: 0-8173-1152-1

          Southern Scribe Review

 

 

All Photography Charles Moore

2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved