“Adelman has moved beyond the familiar cliches of most documentary
photography into that rare sphere wherein technical ability and social vision
combines to create a work of art. As the product of such art, DOWN HOME is
no less a social document than an object of pictorial delight.”
“…some of the ﬁnest portraits in contemporary photography.”
-New York TIMES Book Review
“I have selected Bob Adelmanʼs photo of Negroes standing up to a ﬁre hose
in Birmingham. It is last yearʼs most dramatic picture report. This
photograph is not only vital - it is unforgettable; it is carved in my memory
forever. It has all the necessary qualities of a good picture. It contains
variety and balance of shapes, contrast of values (blacks and whites) and it
is rich in texture. The subject is timely. To me the historical and journalistic
record combined with emotion and esthetic qualities makes the picture (I
“He has a strong sense of social consciousness, and the refrain to almost
everything he does is that elsewhere in the world, the government is lying,
people are suffering, absurdities are institutionalized. Heʼs interested in the
underground, whether it be in politically liberal enclaves or in the way things
are played out at night on 42nd street. I can imagine him as T. J.. Eckleburg,
the allseeing man on the billboard in THE GREAT GATSBY, who represented
to F. Scott Fitzgerald a mute moral consciousness who looked down over the
Mine Eyes Have Seen Bearing Witness to the Struggle for Civil Rights
Photographs by Bob Adelman; essays by Charles Johnson TIME INC.; 196
Saturday, December 22, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle
Little-seen photographs of ordinary people caught up in civil rights movement
Regan McMahon, Chronicle Deputy Book Editor
Many books have chronicled the civil rights movement and the great
achievements of its leaders. What makes photojournalist and social
activist Bob Adelman's "Mine Eyes Have Seen" so distinctive is his focus
on the regular folks affected by the movement and those who laid their
lives on the line for it, and the fact that the artist behind the lens was
no passive observer.
Adelman was a partisan, a white man who not only chronicled these people
and events for national magazines such as Life, Newsweek and Time but also
passionately believed in the need for radical change so that black
Americans would enjoy the same rights and privileges as other U.S.
citizens. He volunteered as a photographer for the Congress of Racial
Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
As Charles Johnson, author of the National Book Award-winning "Middle
Passage," writes in the first of his two provocative essays here, Adelman
"shows us these people as they are, and as they were when they were in the
streets, striving, dreaming. What drove the Movement was clear to him, and
he makes it clear to us today. In his pictures, the triumph of the
Movement - of all black Americans - is delivered with unforgettable power
and beauty." Johnson previously collaborated with Adelman on "King: A
Photobiography of Martin Luther King Jr." (2000)
The first section of "Mine Eyes," titled "Overture," effectively shows
life under segregation in the rural, cotton-picking South and in the
cities in impoverished neighborhoods like New York's Bedford Stuyvesant.
We see a man trucking cotton in Wilcox County, Ala., a "Negro Stay Out"
sign on a store in Sumter, S.C., and, on the facing page, "Colored Only"
and "White Men Only" restrooms in Clinton, La. A photo labeled "Socialite
gathering, Dallas, Texas," shows us the exquisite isolation of a uniformed
black maid amid well-dressed, gloved women chatting under crystal
Black cultural heroes appear as well, including Duke Ellington, Miles
Davis, Sydney Poitier, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Hank Aaron, B.B. King,
a young, leggy Tina Turner and a watery-eyed James Baldwin at a New York
memorial service for the four girls killed in Birmingham, Ala., in the
16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Adelman's comments accompany the photos, and his personal knowledge of the
people or the event provide rich context. "Many who saw Jimmy on
television remembered him as a scold," he says of Baldwin. "But if you
knew him, he was the most tender, affectionate friend. He warned America
that we were on the brink of racial chaos and we must find our way back to
each other - hopefully through love."
In the second section, "The Movement," civil rights leaders are
represented in intimate portraits and active moments: Malcolm X, Stokely
Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks and, of course, Martin Luther King
Jr. King looks unusually relaxed and jubilant after a federal judge rules
that the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march can go on; ministerial at the
16th Street Baptist Church, urging supporters to join the demonstrations;
and Moses-like giving his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on
But it's the riveting shots of anonymous protesters that take one's breath
away: black and white Freedom Riders holding hands; a well-dressed,
dignified black woman kneeling in a truck's path at a Brooklyn
construction site to protest unfair hiring practices; an innocent black
female bystander being arrested in Birmingham.
Adelman offers this perspective of that city, which was so divisive at the
time: "Birmingham was a turning point. It was the first time the Movement
took on such a large city. King called it the most segregated community in
America. The Klan's penchant for resolving racial conflicts with dynamite
earned the city the nickname Bombingham."
Adelman's recollections and pictures remind us of the risks ordinary
citizens took to overthrow Jim Crow laws and claim their voting rights.
Next to a photo of police and fire department water cannons turned on
protesters in Birmingham, he poignantly reflects, "Rather than fleeing,
the protesters hung on to each other and were able to stand up to the full
fury of the water, though not without casualties. I have never witnessed
such cruelty. ... I gave a print of this picture to Dr. King. He studied
it and said, 'I am startled that out of so much pain some beauty came.' "
One could say the same thing about "Mine Eyes Have Seen."