A puzzle in a picture
(Estimated reading time = 2 minutes)
The idea for this entry came from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. I was listening to the episode about ‘The Foot Soldier of Birmingham‘ and half-formed questions were occupying my brain. I’m still not clear about the questions, so it’s not surprising that I don’t have any answers.
What’s the story?
This photograph became an iconic symbol for the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It was taken in 1963, when Martin Luther King visited Birmingham, Alabama. In the photo, it seems like the police officer is setting his dog on a ‘foot soldier’ of the civil rights movement. In fact, the young man – later identified as Walter Gadsen – was an onlooker. He was not part of the civil rights movement. The police officer – Dick Middleton – was restraining the dog.
But the photo – taken by Bill Hudson – was used to show police brutality. Some say that it had a major impact in changing views about the civil rights movement. This seems like a good outcome. But do the ends justify the means? By all accounts, Bill Middleton was a good police officer who treated people equally. Is it right that he should be portrayed as a villain?
Is it right that an incident that was distinct from the protest should be used to illustrate it? What are the responsibilities of the photographer and his editor? Is this an example of fake news?
Much later, this incident was depicted in a sculpture. the details have been changed quite significantly to make a point. The young man is much smaller, the dog more vicious, the police officer more menacing.
Somehow, I feel happier with these changes. For me, the passing of time and the abstract nature of the sculpture lets me know that I’m looking at something that is conveying a message more than showing a specific act.
Is that right? Is my position ethically sustainable? Can my questions about the photo be swept aside when I look at the statue?
Let me know what you think. or what questions this generates for you.
(I also referred to ‘On the wrong side of history‘ while writing this entry.)