The meaning, significance, and definition of race have been debated for centuries. Historical race concepts have varied across time and cultures, creating scientific, social, and political controversy. Of course, today’s definition varies from the scientific racism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that justified slavery and later, Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth. It is also different from the genetic inferiority argument that was present at the wake of the civil rights movement. However, despite the constantly shifting concepts, there seems to be one constant that has provided a foundation for ideas towards race: race is a matter of visually observable attributes such as skin color, facial features, and other self-evident visual cues.
Maurice Berger argues that, “much of what defines race in society is innately visual”(6). If a person’s definition of race is often derived from visual cues, does it not stand that attitudes towards race can be manipulated with a direct and strategic use of visual images? Civil rights activists often found themselves asking this question and it served to form the foundation of a visual culture intended to change the minds of a nation. Activist believed that the prevailing attitudes towards race during the civil rights movement could be altered with a strong and strategic visual culture. Visual images not only documented the movement, but they also actively shaped the struggle for civil rights through modes of manipulation and persuasion.
Photographers had begum to document and publicize the issues of the race problem and the struggle for equal rights in the United States in the early 1900s. Early photographs documented protests against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and captured protests against segregation in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1950s smaller hand cameras and faster film stock were widely available and used to document the movement. These technologies drastically changed the methods of reporting and were widely used by photographers to record rallies, protests, and marches. The civil rights movement would establish a “new pattern for the coverage of social activism,” one that was on the front lines and told the story of protests to the nation ().
The central photographs of the movement were the images of struggle and resistance that were widely published by the media and found their way into the homes of both black and white America. Images of violence against African...