Claude Sitton Covered Civil Rights with Words and Film

Robert P. Moses, field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, pointing out holes left by a shotgun blast in a wall of a home across the street from the voting drive headquarters in Greenwood, Miss. Credit Claude Sitton/The New York Times

Every Sunday in February, we will feature and explore previously unpublished photographs from The New York Times’s archives, with a special focus on the 1960s. Revisit last year’s Unpublished Black History project, sign up for our Race/Related newsletter and share your own experiences with black history in the comments.

The copper-jacketed bullet tore through a civil rights worker’s shoulder, stopping within an inch of his spine. The shotgun blast shattered the car windows of four voting rights activists and gouged the wall of a nearby home.

And a fire destroyed voter registration equipment and materials outside the city’s Voter Registration Headquarters, leaving the street strewn with rubble.

It was 1963 in Greenwood, Miss., a major battleground in the fight for civil rights, and white officials were playing down and ignoring a series of attacks intended to discourage thousands of African-Americans from registering to vote.

Claude Sitton, the renowned New York Times correspondent, shot photos and took meticulous notes, exposing the racial violence with his pen and with his lens.

Mr. Sitton is best known for his words. But the typewritten letters that he sent, along with his film, to John Dugan, a Times photo editor, reveal that he was also determined to capture history with his camera.

He carried a Leica, according to one of his sons, and wrote about light and shadows and underexposed frames. He lamented the gloom inside a crowded black church and the time constraints he faced as he scrambled to report the news and illustrate it at the same time.

“I didn’t have very much time,” Mr. Sitton wrote apologetically, “and will try to give you a better selection the next time I offer something.”

Yet there is power in Mr. Sitton’s plain-spoken letters and in the black-and-white images he captured on Tri-X film in March of 1963. Shown together here for the first time — as part of a weekly series running throughout the month — they offer a firsthand glimpse of life on the front lines of the civil rights movement.

In one frame, Robert P. Moses, the field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, clipboard in hand, pointed to the holes left by the shotgun blast in the wall of a weathered home. In another, the charred detritus of the fire — set by a person or persons unknown — littered the street outside the old voting headquarters.

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Source: The New York Times | RACHEL L. SWARNS and DARCY EVELEIGH