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Mine Eyes Have Seen – chronicling black people’s resistance to US racism

This article is over 16 years, 7 months old
A collection of Bob Adelman’s photographs sheds light on the continuing struggle of black people in the US, writes Yuri Prasad
Issue 2078
Writer James Baldwin mourns for the four child victims of the Birmingham church bombing (Pic: Bob Adelman)
Writer James Baldwin mourns for the four child victims of the Birmingham church bombing (Pic: Bob Adelman)

Journalists, we are told, must be impartial. Photojournalists are no exception. Both are trained not to get emotionally involved in the stories they cover in case they allow their feelings to affect their work.

One way or another Bob Adelman must have missed those particular lectures when he was training as a photographer.

This new book, Mine Eyes Have Seen, collects Adelman’s work as a photographer for the Congress for Racial Equality (Core) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, where he spent much of the 1960s documenting the lives of black Americans.

Adelman joined with thousands of other white activists in a battle against the racist Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, and the brutal economic racism in the North.

Taken at a time when mainstream media in the US depicted black people only as sportsmen, performers, or rioters, Adelman’s portraits of black men and women are dignified and insightful. Bob and his lens got right up close and captured life with a brutal honesty.

In his New York street scenes, his shots of cotton fields in the Deep South, and his depictions of churches, cafes, bars and outhouses, Adelman gives us a taste of black life at a time of great social and political change.

The caption for one of his portraits from the poverty-stricken South reads:

“Mrs Pettway was a proud woman. Proud of the meals from her wood-burning stove. Proud of her wallpaper [made from newspaper cuttings] and proud of Martin Luther King Jr. King, who ‘got us to the place where we wasn’t afraid. He told us to be together.We needed someone to stand for us who wasn’t afraid’.”

Adelman was also prepared to use his skin colour to gain the confidence of Southern whites, who he then depicted in ways that shamed them.

In one photograph we see a socialite gathering in Dallas, Texas.

In the foreground two extravagantly dressed and wealthy women face each other, smiling in their opulent surroundings.

Slightly behind, turned sideways and with her back towards them, stands a black woman maid, quietly waiting to attend to their needs – nondescript, unknown and unrecognised.


In another, less subtle photograph, we see the counter of a diner where a gang of white teenagers have made a Ku Klux Klan cross from lolly sticks and have joyously set fire to it.

But it is in the developing movement for civil rights that Adelman really made his mark.

He travelled with the Freedom Riders as they sought to desegregate inter-state transport.

Some of his images are touchingly simple – black and white arms entwined on the laps of two passengers on a Freedom Ride coach.

Others are more graphic – the expression of a white waitress who is asked to serve coffee to a table of black and white riders, or the mixture of pride and pain in the face of a middle aged women arrested for sitting-in.

The dramatic shots of demonstrators being attacked by police with water cannon still retain their power more than 40 years later. But again, it is Adelman’s portrait work that captures the spirit of the times.

His photograph of writer James Baldwin at a memorial to the four young victims of the 16th Street church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, shows Baldwin with tears in his eyes, defiant, determined, dignified and angry.

It captures the anguished emotions of millions in a single photograph, of a single person.

The accompanying essays by Charles Johnson illuminate much of the early period of the civil rights movement, and describe Adelman’s work well.

But Johnson seems convinced that racial discrimination in the US of the 1960s is an anomaly that a true interpretation of the “American Dream” would rectify.


One of Johnson’s measures of the success of the movement – the increased number of black people in middle class jobs – does not seem to be completely shared by Adelman.

His photographs of Malcolm X reflect an openness to a much more militant approach.

When Malcolm was a photographer for The Messenger, the newspaper of the Nation of Islam, he and Adelman would sometimes meet at civil rights protests.

Together they would discuss politics, religion and aperture settings.

A caption of a picture of Malcolm reads, “No one could give tongue to the grievous wrongs suffered by African Americans in white America more trenchantly than Malcolm.”

Adelman’s photographs of the US in the late 1960s and 1970s chart some of the destruction that tore into black communities as economic recession left many prey to mass unemployment, drugs and poverty.

His shot of a group of young unemployed men in Harlem shows them defiant but bitter, their youth spent in the filthy alleyways of a stinking ghetto and their potential never recognised.

Again and again, Adelman captures the humanity of those who are marginalised and neglected – often showing them battling against dire circumstances.

This beautifully printed collection captures many different aspects of black life in the 1960s and 1970s, and reminds us of a movement that mobilised millions and inspired the world.

It also reminds us of the many battles that are still to be won.

Mine Eyes Have Seen: Bearing Witness to the Struggle for Civil Rights by Bob Adelman and Charles Johnson (Thames and Hudson)

Workers at a cab stand cheer a civil rights march in Montgomery, Alabama (Pic: Bob Adelman)
Workers at a cab stand cheer a civil rights march in Montgomery, Alabama (Pic: Bob Adelman)

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