Secret Histories | Inside the Civil Rights Movement “North of Dixie”
Photo: Declan Haun, Chicago, IL 1966. Chicago History Museum, ICHi-35427. A woman raises her fist during a Martin Luther King Jr. rally as other marchers pass behind her, Chicago, Illinois, 1966.
The South, the land of Jim Crow, was the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-twentieth century. But the movement was much larger than our collective memory holds. It extended throughout the North and across the Midwest, til finally making it to the Pacific, where it broke out along the West coast. Civil Rights was not a regional affair, but one that has been a part of the United States since its very inception—and continues to this very day.
North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South by Mark Speltz (Getty Publications) is a seminal visual history of the movement between 1938 and 1975, documenting the battles that took place in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, and many other cities north of the Mason_Dixon Line. Featuring photographs by Crave faves Gordon Parks, Ruth-Marion Baruch, Stephen Shames, Charles “Teenie” Davis, Bob Adelman, and Leonard Freed, among many others, North of Dixie shines light on the largely forgotten chapters of recent American history. Speltz speaks with Crave about the creation of this vital book.
North of Dixie is a massive undertaking: a searing account of a large part of the twentieth century America that has been buried in the annals of history as a footnote. What was the inspiration to take on a project of this scope?
Mark Speltz: The inspiration for North of Dixie was born out of my graduate studies in Milwaukee a decade ago. I became fascinated with the city’s contested struggles against housing desegregation, unequal schools, and police surveillance and over time, searched out all of the local photographic documentation I could find. Yet, when I rifled through piles of civil rights movement photography books and exhibition catalogs for images beyond the South to use for comparison, I repeatedly came up empty-handed. I noticed very few pictures from the North and West were used to illustrate our nation’s familiar narrative of the Civil Rights Movement—the one we teach, hold up, and celebrate in our schools. North of Dixie is an attempt to fill the gap in the visual narrative of the movement.
This is such a massive story, one that you’ve been able to powerfully tell in a succinct yet encompassing way. What were some of the challenges you faced researching the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the north? Did you find any surprise along the way?
A primary challenge every author faces revolved around what to include and how many words were needed to cover critically important struggles. Simply put, there’s no way to include every story or photograph, no matter how inspiring they might be. Strong scholarship exists on many of the cities, locations, and civil rights issues mentioned in North of Dixie, but this book will serve as a visual introduction to a broader, more inclusive Civil Rights Movement for many beyond academia. Citations and endnotes throughout will guide curious readers back to primary sources and deeper into the burgeoning literature on the struggle beyond the South.
In the end, I am still surprised by the sheer mountain of photographic evidence of the movement nationwide. Americans have been led to believe local concerns up north mattered less than the southern movement and that, in part, has influenced how we remember the era. Northern and western activism is all but absent in how we characterize, teach, and celebrate the era. North of Dixie seeks to recast the visual narrative so no one will be surprised that crucial Civil Rights struggles were fought in their own backyard.
Mainstream media and history give us a very skewed vision of the North, presenting it as “better” than the South. There is little, if any discussion, of de facto segregation, redlining, surveillance, media bias, or any of the other insidious practices that have devastated African American communities for over a century. Why do you think this is?
For decades activists in the North and West attacked all sorts of deep-rooted concerns that continue to plague American communities today. For example, housing discrimination and school segregation up north was only “de facto” in name, yet Americans are much more familiar with Ruby Bridges, the Little Rock Nine, and other important, but well-worn stories of the southern movement. Students today come to visualize the Civil Rights Movement through iconic pictures that depict familiar and predictable storylines and portray the South as to blame for America’s racial woes.
This is not new, however. Broadly speaking, mainstream media in northern communities preferred to ignore or bury coverage of local civil rights struggles. Quite a few southern governors and newspapermen suggested that northern newspapers spend a little more time covering their own issues, rather than always pointing their fingers at examples of southern racism. When northern struggles could not be ignored, they were rarely given the attention, or afforded the moral clarity, of similar concerns heroic nonviolent protestors struggled against in the deep South. The North was not the racially benevolent region or Northern Promised land that many had hoped for. Even today, it is much easier to ignore or look beyond local and systemic forms of discrimination and racism that have long been national problems, not sectional ones.
So here we are, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, with the Voting Rights Act gutted, with the militarization of the police, with televised lynchings, and a thousand other injustices. Looking back at the Civil Rights Movement, what do you see as the best strategies, lessons, and inspiration that we can use today?
What I have learned by reading about the hard-fought black freedom struggle that stretched across decades and from coast to coast is that it was neither simple nor linear, but rather composed of a complex, interrelated set of issues and campaigns. Local leaders studied, strategized, and conceived of thousands of grassroots campaigns to challenge injustice. As the photographs in North of Dixie demonstrate, these nimble activists nationwide employed wide-ranging tactics to vigorously fight for freedom and racial equity in all its forms.
Every single one of these time-worn tactics remain effective ways to disrupt and call attention to injustices in America’s cities from Oakland and Baton Rouge to Ferguson and New York. Protests of all kinds will continue and Americans will always look to the past for strength and sources of inspiration. I think it is important to remember that the movement’s true foot soldiers were ordinary citizens. These individuals, largely forgotten and left out of the history books, are truly inspiring.
Yet, for every handful of brave individuals challenging American to be better and live up to its ideals, North of Dixie reveals scores of northerners opposing racial progress and equality in any form. These photographs resonate even more powerfully in the last months of 2016 as many wonder how the battles will be refought, solutions reimagined, and what real change will look like.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.