Mark Speltz’s North of Dixie is a powerful book about civil rights photography

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In San Francisco, circa 1955, NAACP members urge riders to boycott Yellow Cab and help stop hiring discrimination during a "Don't Ride" campaign. - COX STUDIO, SAN FRANCISCO, CA, 1955. WASHINGTON, DC, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION
  • COX STUDIO, SAN FRANCISCO, CA, 1955. Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
  • In San Francisco, circa 1955, NAACP members urge riders to boycott Yellow Cab and help stop hiring discrimination during a "Don't Ride" campaign.

In a black-and-white photo from 1946, a group of African-American protestors protest outside of a Chicago ice rink they're forbidden from entering, ironically named White City. They hold up signs: some echo their direct demand, like Put an End to Discrimination at White City others call out the hypocrisy of prejudice, like The Draft Boards Did Not Exclude Negroes. Black Americans were still forced to travel across the world to fight for their country but couldn't go down the block to their local ice rink.

Author and historian Mark Speltz is quick to point that the photo challenges two modern misconceptions about the historical narrative of the civil rights movement—it was happening for decades before the 1960s, and it was happening in the north.

That's the gist of Speltz's book, North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South (Getty), which the author will discuss at an exhibit of the same name tonight at the DuSable Museum of African American History. Speltz will preview images from his book, hold a discussion about the photographs, and stick around to sign copies of North of Dixie.

The photographs inside the book show how issues of inequality and discrimination were playing out beyond the south during the civil rights era.

"If you're going to tell a really quick overview of the civil rights movement, it's typically a celebratory, heroic narrative of things that are overcome in the south," Speltz says. "But if you slow down and take a little extra time to read more broadly, to look at more photographs, to listen to stories of our neighbors, we realize the struggle was waged nationwide in cities large and small. Racism and discrimination were not just southern aberrations, they were nationwide ills."

cover_north_of_dixie.jpg

North of Dixie features 100 photographs taken during the civil rights movement (between 1938 and 1975). Speltz uses these pictures to point out racial issues that plagued the northern, midwestern, and western United States. The historian said he made a point of including snapshots from a broad range of time and place.

"Our textbooks cast the racial issues of the 1950s and '60s as 'southern,' as if they were southern struggles and they were overcome," Speltz says.

The author initially became invested in the topic a decade ago, when he was getting his masters degree in history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He began researching the grassroots civil rights movements that occurred in Milwaukee over open housing in the late 60s, which was printed in Wisconsin Magazine of History last year.

"I didn't know anything about it," he says. "The story we often tell is a very southern story—a very heroic struggle that ends with Dr. King's assassination or landmark legislation—but the issues that the activists in Milwaukee and Chicago were struggling with went largely unsolved and uncelebrated. Fifty years later, all of these photographs and the issues that they were fighting against are just so incredibly relevant."

One of the most striking visual parallels is a page early on in the book. An image from 1967 of a young black boy walking with his arms up, away from a herd of National Guard soldiers in Newark; above it, a black man protesting in Ferguson in August 2014 backs away from a group of heavily armed officers in riot gear—his hands are held up in the same, surrendering position 47 years later.

Mark Speltz - COURTESY THE AUTHOR
  • Courtesy the author
  • Mark Speltz

This year photography and video continued to be important tools in the fight against inequality—especially with police brutality cases like the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, which sparked protests across the country.

"We've seen a lot of examples in the past two years where the visuals associated with either a protest, a demonstration, or police violence made an impact," Speltz says. "It doesn't always influence the final outcome of a court or whether or not an officer will be charged, but the impact is felt. The issues are magnified, they're brought into the public's eye faster, further, and wider than ever before. Photography is absolutely critical to advancing all struggles for social justice and equality and it will remain to be critical in the future."

A viral photo on social media of a young black woman, Ieshia Evans, getting arrested by police in SWAT gear in Baton Rouge was one of the most telling images from 2016, Speltz says, and points out how these issues are still being fought and documented today.

"When we see a photograph today of a protest or a video of police violence, you're moved by it and you can feel that impact just like you would of a historic photograph," he says. "But then you also have the ability to share it or put some words to it and share it widely, then it goes even further and further. I think that that reach is truly incredible. Activists in the 1960s could never imagine having that type of reach."

But photos from 50-plus years ago have instead reached through time, remaining relevant in today's world after many thought the fight would soon end.

"It's a powerful time to look at a book like this," Speltz says. "It gives you more perspective on the issues that we have now and continue to struggle with."

North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South By Mark Speltz (Getty), Speltz appears for a discussion and book signing, Thu 1/12, 6:30 PM, Ames Auditorium, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th, 773-947-0600, dusablemuseum.org, $10, $8 for members.


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