Inspired by Black Lives Matter protests, I offer a photo essay as a haunting reminder that the fight continues decades after the Civil Rights Movement.

This story won a third prize in News Decoder’s Ninth Storytelling Contest.

With my photography project, I wanted to point out the parallels between the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement because we are still fighting the same social issues.

I first found common protest signs used during the Civil Rights Movement, then juxtaposed those images with Black Lives Matter signs to show the similarities between the movements. I scanned the negatives into a computer and photoshopped pictures of people taken from the Civil Rights Movement onto my background.

Adding these images gave my work an eerie feeling that the people who fought to end racism towards Black people back then cannot rest in peace because we are still fighting it today. They are haunting us to this day.

Am I?

Civil Rights Movement

My montage is based on a photo taken by George Ballis of a protest in 1964 in front of the Atlantic City Convention Center supporting the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Posters reading “I Am A Man” were common during the Civil Rights Movement, and I echo it with “I Am A Person.” The beheading dehumanizes the man and contradicts the poster. The whiting of the eyes and multiple heads create a ghostly presence, as though he is haunting us.

Muscle Memory

The original photo, taken by an unknown photographer and retrieved from the Bettmann Archives, captures Black children in July 1964 running from police during a race riot in Brooklyn that was sparked by police brutality in Harlem. In my piece, I have combined a protest sign that was common during the Civil Rights Movement with a stop sign near my house. That the girls have no faces reflects the perspective of police officers who viewed them as guilty Black people, regardless of who they were or what they had done. I used a blur filter on the girls to make them seem more ghostly and to create motion that mimics them running.

Silent Privilege

The original photo, retrieved from the Bettmann Archives, is of a segregated bus in Texas during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in April 1956. In the background of my piece is a protest poster that was common during recent Black Lives Matter protests, placed on a bridge at a popular park. I chose this image because of the terrifying smile on the white man’s face and then inserted the heads of the two white people who benefited from a system that favored whites over Blacks. The floating heads dehumanize the individuals and render them more ghostly. The Black girl in the back of the montage has two heads looking at each other, emphasizing that while a white person can easily look away from racism, she cannot.

Stand Off

The original photo, from the Chicago Tribune historical archive, was taken in 1919 when, during race riots in Chicago, the state militia was called in to Chicago’s South Side to try to stop the violence. It shows a Black veteran face-to-face with a white state militiaman. My piece shows a poster used during Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020, in front of a statue of a soldier. I blurred out the two men’s eyes, to show that they are not actually looking at each other. The beheading makes them more ghostly and emphasizes that the actions and problems of the past still haunt our present.

Stand Together

The original photo, by an unknown photographer at an unknown location, was taken around 1965 during a rally in support of civil rights leader Wally Nelson after he was jailed. In my piece, I inserted the image of a Black Lives Matter sign on top of a hill. I left the bodies and faces of the people untouched because I wanted them to seem more human than the people in my other pieces. However, to create a ghostly feel, I blurred and enlarged the  image of same two individuals and placed it behind them. They are joined together over the BLM sign to form something of an arch, to create a sense that there is an overarching idea that to create change, everyone must step up and work together.

Three questions to consider:

  1. What was the U.S. Civil Rights Movement?
  2. What is the main message that the author conveys with her images?
  3. Do you think that the Black Lives Matter movement will lead to lasting change in the United States?
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Nelson Graves is founder and president of News Decoder. An experienced educator and administrator, Graves was a correspondent, bureau chief and regional managing editor at Reuters for 24 years, holding posts in Washington, Paris, New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Milan and Tokyo. He later served as admissions director at Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program in international relations in Italy.

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