Selected Excerpts from Book
Excerpt: An Image for the Ages
When he took the photograph that would propel him into the history books, Fred Blackwell was just twenty-two years old, the same age as some of the demonstrators at the counter, but he had already worked for the Jackson Daily News for more than a year. The newspaper’s editor, Jimmy Ward, had offered young Blackwell a job when at age fourteen he was named “Paper Boy of the Year.” “When you finish high school,” Ward told him, “come on back and we’ll put you to work.” The idea stuck in the teen’s imagination, and he would eventually take Ward up on his offer after pursuing another boyhood dream—serving in the U.S. National Guard.
Just as Charlie Newell would do several years later, Fred Blackwell transferred to Central High School during his junior year (1958–1959) in order to enroll in Central’s ROTC program. He therefore knew many of the kids who showed up at Woolworth’s to heckle the demonstrators—he had gone to school with their older siblings. A native of south Jackson, Blackwell in fact lived just a few doors down from D.C. Sullivan’s family and was friends with D.C.’s older brother.
After one year at Central, Blackwell transferred back to Provine High for his senior year. As soon as he finished school, he joined the guard and spent the next year completing his basic training and serving on active duty. It was during his tour of duty that Blackwell received his initial apprenticeship in photography. “They made a photographer out of me,” Blackwell acknowledged. He was captivated by the process of taking and printing photographs. “There’s just something magical about watching a photo come to life in the [chemical] tray,” he would later say.
In 1962, with his National Guard service behind him, Blackwell marched into the Jackson Daily News offices just across the street from city hall and reminded its editor of his offer. “Put him to work,” Ward commanded. At first Blackwell started off as a copy boy, doing whatever odd jobs needed to be done around the office. He soon honed in on a dynamo named Jack Thornell, the paper’s primary photographer, and started to shadow Thornell to see how news photography was done. When the paper’s other photographer unexpectedly moved on late in 1962, Blackwell asked Thornell to put in a good word for him with the boss. “Give him a camera and let him try,” Ward declared. Thus, Freddie Blackwell, at the age of twenty-two, became an apprentice to his hero, Jack Thornell, and the newspaper’s backup camera man.
Thornell had some impressive credits to his name even prior to coming to Jackson. He had begun studying photography as an enlisted man when he made a wrong turn on an army base and ended up at photography rather than radio school. Not one to question destiny, Thornell stayed and became a respected army photographer. His most high-profile assignment during this period was serving as the corps photographer of the just-enlisted Elvis Presley when the King conquered Europe as a GI. After his army service, Thornell became the Jackson Daily News’s chief photographer and covered every significant civil rights activity in Mississippi from 1960 until 1964. Later, when he was an Associated Press photographer, his picture of James Meredith lying on the ground howling in pain after being shot during his March Against Fear in 1966 won Thornell the Pulitzer Prize.
Blackwell, therefore, had the opportunity to learn his craft from a seasoned perfectionist who knew how to cover all the angles. Within a few months of his apprenticeship, Blackwell was being sent out regularly on assignments alone. He typically used the square-format RoloFlex 120, the industry standard of the time, which provided handsome, high-quality images on a 2<1/4>-inch squared negative.
When the sit-in at Woolworth’s began, Blackwell was the only Jackson Daily News photographer on hand. Thornell was up the street covering the picketing until arrests were made; then he, like Joan Trumpauer and Lois Chaffee, moved down to Woolworth’s to see what was up.
Blackwell captured the early moments of the sit-in: Memphis Norman, Annie Moody, and Pearlena Lewis sitting peacefully at the counter while journalists hover and a few customers depart. Then Thornell swooped in and caught on film Bennie Oliver’s dramatic assault on Memphis Norman. Eager to make the afternoon deadline, Thornell picked up Blackwell’s early film canisters and headed back to the office to print what he and Blackwell had already shot.
It was left to the novice Blackwell to stay and cover the rest of the afternoon’s traumatic events. He framed and shot his now-iconic photograph of the sit-in, as well as an array of other arresting images: Walter Williams lying unconscious on the floor; Lois Chaffee and Pearlena Lewis huddling together in self-defense; a white youth spraying mustard into the air toward the demonstrators.
Since he knew many of the high school kids causing the ruckus, Blackwell found it somewhat strange being on the other side of the camera, shooting images of his neighbors during this surreal event. Despite his inexperience and youth, Blackwell did his job that day and came away with one of the most memorable photographs of the civil rights era.
It was not immediately recognized as a classic. Thornell’s photo of Oliver brutalizing Norman appeared on the front page of the Jackson Daily News that afternoon, as it did in many newspapers across the country the next day, including the New York Times. Blackwell’s photos were mostly an afterthought. Although one of his early sit-in pictures appeared on the Daily News’s front page, below the fold, his most striking images do not show up until the next day, and they took second stage to his mentor’s action shots.
But the seasoned judgment of history transcends the immediacy of a daily deadline’s rush and ultimately selects an image that captures the essence of an era. What Fred Blackwell came away with from Woolworth’s that day turned out to be the quintessential sit-in photograph. His composition had everything: the shiny counter, the tortured demonstrators, the rowdy crowd, the gazing FBI, the weary press, even the standard Woolworth’s sign and middle-America ambiance, right down to the churning lemonade dispenser. It had movement as well as a focal point; it had intense human drama and pathos; it had heart and it had soul. It has endured while other images from that day have faded from the national consciousness.
About the Author
It was while visiting the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, Georgia in 1991 that M. J. O’Brien conceived the work that has become We Shall Not Be Moved. As part of its civil rights display, the King Center showed a photograph of the 1963 Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth’s sit-in—a photograph that has become the image used in history books and magazine articles to show what a sit-in was like. O’Brien was captivated by the photograph because at its center was a woman, Joan (Trumpauer)Mulholland, whom he had known for a number of years.
We Shall Not Be Moved is a labor of love. Primarily created in the late 1990s and finally brought to life through the auspices of the University Press of Mississippi, it is a story of triumph and determination that was captured by the now-iconic Fred Blackwell photograph. Although its publication was delayed (as told in Acknowledgements), timing is everything. The book was supposed to be published in 1999, but for a variety of reasons, it is only reaching a broader public today. And that is as it should be. We are on the cusp of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Jackson Woolworth’s Sit-In (May 28, 1963) and the courageous souls who decided, one-by-one , to sit in at the counter that day are being recognized for their contribution to the overall civil rights struggle.