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Civil Rights in Los Angeles, California

The term civil rights is heavily associated with racial inequalities in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s. But not necessarily with Los Angeles. There is great geographical distance between the South and Los Angeles, but in the past, attitudes towards race in both regions were not always that different. California Christian Leadership Conference members greeting student sit-in leaders, Los Angeles. 1960, Charles Williams, 09.CW.N45.B15.1888CIn Black communities on the West Coast during the 1960s there was a growing battle for equality, especially during interactions with police. However, during this national crisis there was also a very positive relationship that existed between the two regions that is not mentioned or studied enough. While dealing with its own forms of racism in Los Angeles the African American community and their allies provided an immense amount of support to the civil rights movement in the South, which makes absolute sense considering that many of its Black citizens were participants of the Great Migration.

If it were not for the photographic collection at the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center, evidence of Los Angeles’s support for the modern civil rights movement in the South may have quietly slipped into the past. The beginning of the civil rights movement is often associated with three events: Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), the killing of Emmett Till (1955), and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is often acknowledged as the leader or figurehead of the civil rights movement, starting in 1955 as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and lasting until his assassination in 1968. The African American photographic collection in the Bradley Center documents this era in the works of three photographers: Charles Williams, Harry Adams, and Guy Crowder. There are several hundred images of/or related to Dr. King, his many visits to Southern California, and other freedom fighters involved in the struggle. Charles Williams begin photographing Dr. King in Los Angeles as early as 1956. And Guy Crowder documented Dr. King’s eulogy at Morehouse College in 1968. In between those years Harry Adams documented the legacy of Dr. King and the civil rights movement in Los Angeles.

Dr. King and the movement have been documented in iconic photographs by high-profile photographers such as Bob Adelman (March on Washington), Steve Schapiro (Selma), and Don Cravens (King arrest photo). All the above-mentioned photographers were white men. They had a certain amount of access not available to Black men in the South. White racist police could quickly turn nonviolent protests violent in the South. They would attack anyone in range of their batons and a Black man with a camera might not be spared. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a protest at a Woolworth store, Los Angeles. 1960, Charles Williams, 09.CW.N45.01.08AThere were even instances of white photographers being attacked by police. The Bradley Center photographers who documented civil rights activities in Los Angeles had their own special access. They were not just photographers chasing stories for a newspaper or magazine. They documented what was going on in their community at a time when the lives of Black people were of little interest to mainstream newspapers. 

The photographers of Black Los Angeles contributions to the civil rights movement is of great historical significance. They not only document nationally and internationally recognized participants of the movement who visited LA but also local leaders who supported the South and broke down racial barriers in Los Angeles. Some of these Black photographers may or may not have had hopes for full-time employment in mainstream organizations. But unknown to them at the time working as independent photographers proved to be a blessing for the generations that follow them. Today students, faculty, scholars, and the community all have access to Black Los Angeles from the 1940s-2000s thanks to these photographers.

If you are interested in learning more about Los Angeles's connection to the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr. check out CSUN’s own Dr. Karin Stanford’s StoryMap: The Enduring Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. in Los Angeles.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. posing at a lectern with Hobson R. Reynolds and others, Los Angeles. August 27, 1956, Harry Adams, 93.01.HA.B3.N45.392
California Christian Leadership Conference members greeting student sit-in leaders, Los Angeles. 1960, Charles Williams, 09.CW.N45.B15.1888C
Civil rights advocate James Meredith appears to be doing a media interview. Occasion was the James Meredith march for civil rights and voter registration. In background men and women display protest signs with civil rights/voter registration messages. 1966, Harry Adams. 93.01.HA.N120.B9.12.84.08
Congressman Gus Hawkins, Leon Washington, Loren Miller in Los Angeles. 1962, Harry Adams, 93.01.HA.B3.N45.515
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a protest at a Woolworth store, Los Angeles. 1960, Charles Williams, 09.CW.N45.01.08A
Women's organization raising funds for civil rights movement. 1965, Harry Adams, 93.01.HA.B1.N45.55
Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer (right) stands beside an unidentified woman (left). 1965, Harry Adams, 93.01.HA.N120.B8.06.11.08
Protest for over crossing with Leon Washington (front left), Marnesba Tillmon Tackett (far right). Tackett, a civil rights activist, worked to desegregate Los Angeles public schools. 1966, Harry Adams, 93.01.HA.B1.N45.114
Rev. Maurice Dawkins and other ministers display protest signs. The ministers protest in support of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama for aid in the integration fight and against the atrocities being committed against integration fighters. In May, the Freedom Rally was held at Wrigley Field to raise funds to send to Birmingham and to aid Dr. King and the SCLC, in part, for bail for the thousands jailed. 1963, Harry Adams, 09.01.HA.N45.B17.199
A. Philip Randolph Institute Executive Director Bayard Rustin (left) and the Institute's National Field Director Ken Orduna talk with civil rights activist Gwen Green during an event to welcome Mr. Rustin at the home of singer Ray Charles. Bayard Rustin served throughout his life in the civil rights movement and as a political activist. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2013. 1973, Guy Crowder, 11.06.GC.N120.B6.S7.30.52.09
Rosa Parks speaks at a podium at the Hilton Hotel, Los Angeles. 1971, Harry Adams, 93.01.HA.N120.B10.32.87.11
Men form a chain of clasped hands behind the casket of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his eulogy at Morehouse College. Left to right on the podium: Dr. Ralph David Abernathy (background, behind lectern, top of head visible only), Fred Shuttlesworth (background, right of lectern), Benjamin Hooks (right of Shuttlesworth). Front row left to right: unidentified African American man, Leon Hall, Al Sampson, Cirillo McSween, Y.T. Rogers, J.T. Johnson, James Bevel, and two unidentified African American men. 1968

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