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This Light of Ours - Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement

This Light of Ours

Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement

Edited by Leslie G. Kelen
Foreword by Julian Bond
Afterword by Clayborne Carson
Contributions by Matt Herron & Charles E. Cobb Jr.
Hardcover : 9781617031717, 251 pages, 150 b&w photographs, January 2012
Paperback : 9781496849564, 251 pages, 150 b&w photographs, August 2023

An astonishing visual record taken by photographers directly engaged in the struggle


This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement is a paradigm-shifting publication that presents the Civil Rights Movement through the work of nine photographers who participated in the movement as activists with SNCC, SCLC, and CORE. Unlike images produced by photojournalists, who covered breaking news events, these photographers lived within the movement—primarily within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) framework—and documented its activities by focusing on the student activists and local people who together made it happen.

The core of the book is a selection of 150 black-and-white photographs, representing the work of photographers Bob Adelman, George Ballis, Bob Fitch, Bob Fletcher, Matt Herron, David Prince, Herbert Randall, Maria Varela, and Tamio Wakayama. Images are grouped around four movement themes and convey SNCC's organizing strategies, resolve in the face of violence, impact on local and national politics, and influence on the nation's consciousness. The photographs and texts of This Light of Ours remind us that the movement was a battleground, that the battle was successfully fought by thousands of “ordinary” Americans among whom were the nation's courageous youth, and that the movement's moral vision and impact continue to shape our lives.


"This book of photographs, interviews, and biographies pays homage to nine activist photographers associated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who advanced the US civil rights cause by documenting movement actions and backlashes. The photographs poignantly and brilliantly capture key events in the southern movement in the 1960s—protests, memorials for murdered activists and innocent children, exuberant songfests, marches, and bloody encounters. . . . A must-read. Summing Up: Essential."


"This Light of Ours offers insightful commentary and a treasure trove of stunning images gleaned from the files of nine activist photographers, seven of whom were connected to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Based on a traveling exhibit designed by the Center for Documentary Expression & Art, this beautifully produced book highlights the understudied and often underappreciated visual dimension of the 1960s civil rights struggle. Confronting the artists and historical dimension of these photographs fifty years after their creation was an unforgettable and moving experience that I hope thousands of individuals will ultimately share."

- Raymond Arsenault, author of Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice and The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert That Awakened America

"This remarkable collection is as inspiring as it is instructive. A few iconic images are represented but most of these photos will be new to most readers. Collectively, they make palpable a moment of possibility, not fully realized but not fully missed either. Perhaps what is most striking is the way these photos capture the sheer determination of ‘ordinary’ people to be free. One caption says it best: ‘Strength where you might least expect it was often encountered . . . reflecting vitality and dignity in a society trying to strip it away.’"

- Charles M. Payne, Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago, and coeditor of Teach Freedom: Education for Liberation in the African American Tradition

"Movement photographers created a striking visual history of the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. This superb collection of their best work will evoke powerful memories among those who lived through those turbulent times, while introducing a new generation to the courage and tenacity of local people determined to take charge of their destiny. This Light of Ours should be required reading for all who believe in the possibilities of democracy."

- John Dittmer, professor emeritus at DePauw University and author of Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi