Old Images Stir Emotion

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By: Nekoro Gomes

“This is not a part of my history that I lived through ? but it’s part of my history as a resident of Birmingham, something I learned about growing up,” says Alex Cohn, a former photo intern at The Birmingham (Ala.) News. Cohn was largely responsible for “Unseen. Unforgotten,” an eight-page print and online photo gallery of never- before-seen images taken between 1956 and 1965, during the civil rights era. “I think this story filled in a lot of the gaps,” he says.

Cohn accidentally discovered more than 5,000 undeveloped negatives tucked away in a closet at the News building in November 2004. The rare find provided the paper a wealth of images that had literally never seen the light of day. He was integral in deciding which photos would run, but was also tasked with doing seemingly endless background research on each of the images selected. After several delays, the photos were finally published on Feb. 26.

The Web version features photos of such prominent civil rights activists as Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth drumming up support at black churches in the city.

The most telling images in the collection however, are those that show typical Birmingham residents during a tumultuous time ? the many young people who picketed and protested on both sides of the struggle over integration; the brave students like Patricia Marcus, who integrated Birmingham’s West End High School in 1963; and grief-stricken mothers like Denise McNair, who lost a daughter in the Sixteenth Baptist Church bombing the same year.

The photos serve as a lesson to a new generation unfamiliar with the history of civil rights in Alabama, while to others they are a reminder of the chilling images a nation witnessed via television broadcasts and AP wire photos during the 1960s.

Interest in the “Unseen” gallery has been pouring in from around the country and abroad; the newspaper has logged hundreds of calls from readers interested in collecting the rare issue, according to News marketing director Bob West. During the first three days after the series was published, its Web site received more than 3.5 million hits, with over 88,000 unique visitors. “The traffic to our Web site has been very gratifying,” says Editor Tom Skarrit.

Surprisingly, the response from local readers who are all too familiar with their city’s place in civil rights history hasn’t been as overwhelming. “Locally it’s been a good reaction, but this material is not entirely new to the local population. So it isn’t quite as new here as it is to people elsewhere,” notes Executive Editor Hunter George.

John F. Riley, a 61-year-old Birmingham native who wrote a letter to the editor about the “Unseen” photographs after their publication, tells E&P some Birmingham residents have grown tired of the negative civil rights-era images that represent a much different city. “I think there are many people who are willing to move on and would like to move on,” says Riley, an educator who lives in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover. “That’s really the reason why the reaction isn’t as much [in Birmingham], if people feel like they’ve been beat over the head with the issue for years.”

On the News’ online discussion boards, readers have expressed mixed reactions to the photos. Some applaud the paper’s decision to publish the controversial images, while others have expressed annoyance with more media attention to a bygone era when the city was derisively called “Bombingham.”

“Yawn,” read the first post in response to the “Unseen” project a day after its publication. “Just what we need, another civil rights story; we haven’t had one in so long.”

“We’ve had quite enough about the civil rights movement shoved down our throats and really don’t care to hear any more about it,” read one blunt post from another local reader.

While some responses on the discussion board were criticized by other visitors for being insensitive at best, the debate does hint at a grumbling that both Cohn and Barnett Wright, a staff writer who worked on the project, admit they’ve heard before. “So many newspaper archives have thousands and thousands of images that never get published ? and I think what helped this along is that so much of this has been written about,” Cohn admits.

Despite some criticisms, the paper’s current editors felt the photos were an important postscript to the News’ history during the civil rights era, back when many of the paper’s editors were reluctant to cover a nascent movement for fear of embarrassing the city. “Some of what [the News] has done is stronger than an apology in a lot of ways,” says Cohn. “It’s publishing things we wouldn’t have seen.”

Wright agrees: “They didn’t have to publish these. … I think they realized the value of these photographs to the newspaper, the value to the city, and the value to history.”

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