‘It was 1963 and I was in Washington DC. My picture editor at the Observer, Peter Crookston, knew I was in the US on my way to get married in Vancouver, and he sent me a telegram. ‘Get down to Birmingham, Alabama.’ So I did.”
Photographer Colin Jones is casting his mind back 55 years, to a time when the slow pace of communications made journalism both simpler and more confusing. “I wasn’t sure what was happening in Alabama. I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I had my cameras with me.”
Jones soon discovered he was flying into the cauldron of the civil rights movement just as it was boiling over. That April in 1963 Martin Luther King had written from the city’s jailhouse: “Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known.” This was why Birmingham had been selected for the next phase in the struggle for equality.
It began with economic boycotts, sit-ins, marches and fruitless attempts to negotiate on the part of African Americans. The response came in the form of bombings, mass arrests, and police and Ku Klux Klan-led violence.
Jones, who was 27 at the time, found the segregation shocking, he says: the ubiquitous “no blacks allowed” signs; the extreme poverty of the African American neighbourhoods in contrast to the air-conditioned, whites-only department stores. “I didn’t think America was as bad as this. It was like South Africa during apartheid, which I’d seen.”
Days before Jones arrived in Birmingham, the authorities had broken up a protest by schoolchildren with high-pressure fire hoses and attack dogs on the orders of the notorious public safety commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor. Jones’s images record the immediate aftermath – the wreckage of homes destroyed by rioting (with clean washing hanging among the rubble); released protesters emotionally sharing their grievances; the recently bombed AG Gaston Motel (King had stayed there; the home of his brother, AD King, was also bombed the same night); and opposing ranks of African American protesters and white law enforcement – which made for intrinsically dramatic compositions.
“I just took as much as I could because I wasn’t 100% sure what was going on,” says Jones. “But you could tell there was something in the air. There was an atmosphere – like something was going to happen. I didn’t see black people being aggressive against the police but the police would have been aggressive to them. They didn’t want to upset the police or give them an excuse to get their batons out.”
Neither side objected to being photographed. The police were almost conceited, Jones says, proudly brandishing their weaponry. African Americans on the street (mostly men) often filled him in on what was going on and pointed him in the right direction. They even invited him into a meeting at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the headquarters of the campaign.
Less hospitable was Bull Connor, who Jones encountered several times. In fact, it was Connor who found him. “He drove up and he saw that I was white. He wanted to know who I was and where I came from. He was very officious and he clearly ruled the roost. There were columns either side of the road: the black side and the whites. And Connor said to me: ‘If you go and join them [the black side] and if something happens, I won’t hesitate to shoot you.’ ” Jones was not fazed. “I’d been in Vietnam.” Although he did notice that on the back seat of Connor’s car were loose shotgun cartridges. “I should have photographed them.”
The Birmingham campaign was not in vain. The media coverage and worldwide shock brought the civil rights issue to the attention of President John Kennedy. In June, he set in motion what came to be the 1964 Civil Rights Act, telling the nation: “The events in Birmingham and elsewhere have so increased cries for equality that no city or state or legislative body can prudently choose to ignore them.”
That September, however, in one of the worst atrocities of the era, white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church during a Sunday morning service, killing four young girls.
Jones would have loved to have gone on following events, he says, but he had places to be, like his wedding in Vancouver. He sent his rolls of film to London without having seen any of his images. Some of them he had never seen at all until his visit to the Observer office last week. “When I first started here, I didn’t know one end of the camera from the other,” he says.
His career took him around the world, from Swinging London to Asian poverty, Soviet Russia to Afro-Caribbean immigrants in 1970s London. In Alabama, there was an aspect of “right place, right time”, but Jones’s images seem to convey the whole story, emotionally as well as factually. “People often say you’ve got to have a ‘good eye’,” he says. “But it’s not your eye that takes the pictures, it’s your brain.”