A half century ago, a social change movement produced searing media imagery displaying the viciousness of unrestrained White supremacy with brutalized bodies and violent clashes. Those photos of civil rights struggles have become iconic. In the summer of 2017, another social change movement seeking to dismantle 50 years of racial and social justice gains came to Charlottesville, Virginia. The resulting media imagery from the Unite the Right rally also showed emboldened White supremacy, violent confrontation, and victimized Black bodies. Those images circulated widely, some achieving iconic status.
As a media historian at the University of Virginia (UVA), I’ve researched news coverage of the civil rights movement. I participated in counterprotests against Unite the Right. Examining the voluminous media imagery of Charlottesville’s Summer of Hate, I couldn’t help but notice how the most heavily circulated photos graphically and thematically echoed famous images of mid-century civil rights-era struggles.
America’s mainstream media environment during the civil rights movement tended to privilege photos and news film that told a particular story about Southern White segregationists, and those protesting Jim Crow laws and voter disenfranchisement. Some of those images have become so ubiquitous, they serve as American popular memory of that era. Notably, many of these images don’t tend to challenge or discomfort White viewers.
In 2014, in the midst of the Ferguson uprisings and the public arrival of Black Lives Matter as an in-the-streets protest movement, some media outlets debated whether the imagery echoed the civil rights movement or not, and what that meant for broad public support. Three years later, Charlottesville became a media flashpoint, and the most heavily reproduced images told a familiar tale about White power and Black victimization.
Here’s a frequently reproduced photo from the evening of Aug. 11, 2017, when Unite the Right rally participants staged a tiki-torch parade through the UVA campus, while chanting “You (or Jews) will not replace us!” Dressed in the alt-right costume of white polo shirt and khaki pants, along with a Hitler Youth haircut, is Peter Cvjetanovic.
The photo’s graphic construction emphasizes the black round hole of his wide-stretched mouth. This representation of racism unbound echoes one of the most famous photos of the civil rights era that also centers a young racist spewing invective.
In the iconic image below, Hazel Massery yells at 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, Black students chosen to integrate Little Rock Central School in the midst of the 1957 integration battle in Arkansas.
One familiar image of emboldened White supremacy provided the visual template for another a half century later. Both photos portray these representatives of White supremacy as active agents. They are the subjects of the narrative and physical space depicted in the photo: bad White people doing and saying awful things, and making bad things happen.
In the photo, Eckford is the acted-upon, disempowered victim, shown facing away from her tormentors. This is a recurring trope in civil rights photography, as Martin A. Berger has discussed in his important book, “Seeing Through Race.”
Consider this famous image of sit-in protesters at a Jackson, Mississippi, lunch counter facing away from their White tormentors who swarm around them dumping sugar and ketchup on their bodies.
Now, look at this image from the culminating moment of the tiki-torch parade: A small group of antiracist students gather around the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of UVA’s Rotunda as hundreds of alt-right marchers swarm around them.
Like the students from the early 1960s, these Virginia youths had received nonviolent, direct-action training knowing they would be confronting White supremacists. Like their forebears in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, they face away from the racists who threaten them. The power of the image is in their seeming helplessness.
Presidential candidate Joe R. Biden amplified this message in his inaugural campaign video, extolling the heroism of antiracist students, while disparaging Donald J. Trump’s support for White nationalists.
Photos and news film of civil rights marchers as the seemingly hapless objects of segregationists’ violence are among the most reproduced to this day.
Here’s John Lewis during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.
Compare this to a still from cellphone video that went viral following the aborted Aug. 12, 2017 Unite the Right rally on Charlottesville’s Bloody Saturday, so named for the racist violence unleashed that day. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was murdered when she was plowed down by a car driven by a White supremacist. The Virginia State Police had declared the rally an unlawful assembly, but that merely flushed the rally’s assorted neo-Nazis, White nationalists, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and various armed militias marauding throughout the downtown core.
Here, White supremacists chased counterprotester DeAndre Harris, a 20-year-old special education teacher’s aide, into a parking garage. They proceeded to beat him with poles while Harris desperately tried to raise himself from the ground.
The resulting visual certainly echoes the picture of John Lewis’ beating; however we can trace this visual and narrative trope all the way back in the American racial imagination to Simon Legree’s beating of Uncle Tom, the protagonist of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” In May 2020, the horrific cellphone video of George Floyd prone on the ground under the knee of a racist White cop is the latest iteration of this enduring trope.
To be certain, not all the images from the two eras show Black people and other antiracists as victims of White supremacist perpetrators. Berger has argued that the photography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 Birmingham campaign and similar images have largely disappeared because they don’t conform to the narrative of beleaguered Black people victimized by villainous Whites.
This photo offers us the familiar White Birmingham police officer with his German shepherd. But in this photo, the Black male resists with a small knife. You probably have not seen this photo.
On the other hand, you may remember having seen this picture of Corey Long using an improvised aerosol flamethrower to protect himself, and the possibly cowering elderly man behind him, against a Unite the Right rally-goer who comes at Long with a rolled-up Confederate flag.
The photo had significant media circulation in 2017 and after, since Long faced jail time for his act of self-defense. But the image has not achieved iconic status; it’s not a go-to photo used to illustrate any media story about Charlottesville. It doesn’t fit the traditional narrative of beleaguered, helpless Black victims needing assistance, or at least sympathy, from outraged and nonracist White people responding to the image.
This image won the Pulitzer Prize. It shows the terrorist car attack on marching nonviolent Charlottesville antiracists celebrating the aborted end of the alt-right’s rally. Scholar Jennifer Wenzel called this chaotic and difficult-to-decipher image “an American Guernica,” comparing it to Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece protesting the inhumanity and terror of a war on civilians. Wenzel argued the car attack photo echoes the fragmentation and disassemblage of the Cubist painting.
But there’s one element in the image that isn’t fragmented, chaotic, or difficult to decipher: It’s the Black male body at the very center of the photo suspended in midair with his leg bent at a horrible angle. What makes the image even more unsettling is the young man’s impassive expression.
It is the very same expression we see on the face of another young Black man frozen in another moment of White supremacist brutality in Birmingham during the 1963 Children’s Crusade, when civil rights organizers flooded the streets with young people who encountered Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor’s high-powered fire hoses and police dogs. This photo of a young man caught at the moment of a dog attack is probably the most recognizable and reproduced of all civil rights images. While the Charlottesville photo doesn’t have quite the visual clarity of the Birmingham picture, both photos provide a stark representation of violent force – the police officers’ dogs; the neo-Nazi’s car – against a horrifically assaulted young Black man who seems to submit to the brutalization.
In centering Black victimization, both photos obscure as much as they reveal. The Charlottesville photo can’t let you know that the young man, Marcus Martin, had just heroically pushed his fiancée out of the way of the deliberately speeding car. He saved her, but couldn’t save her friend, Heyer, who sustained blunt force trauma and died at the scene. Walter Gadsden, in the Birmingham photo, wasn’t submitting to the attack with the “saintly calm” that a 1963 Life magazine photo editor attributed to him. Gadsden was a bystander, not an activist, and despite what the photo appears to show, the high-school student was fighting back, grabbing at the police officer’s arm and attempting to kick the dog away.
Much has changed in the struggle against White supremacy since the civil rights years, both in the approaches of antiracist activists and in the media environment. Top-down processes of selection and circulation by a small number of gatekeeping mass media entities have given way to the more bottom-up dynamics of our social media age. Image-making and dissemination are now also in the hands of Black and antiracist groups that was not possible in the 1950s and 1960s.
But the images that “go viral” and stick in public consciousness keep echoing back more than half a century. Whether it’s a photo of a screaming neo-Nazi with a tiki torch or a segregationist cop with a snapping German shepherd, nonracist Whites can reassure themselves by affirming, “That’s not me.” They can also decide what kind of image of Black response to racism is acceptable. It hasn’t changed all that much since Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Massery.
Aniko Bodroghkozy is a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement” and the forthcoming book “Making #Charlottesville: Media From Civil Rights to Unite the Right.”