By: Nate Dern

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Photos from the Civil Rights Movement and Now: How Far Have We Really Come?

You may be looking at the images coming from the Ferguson protests following the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and thinking, ‘Racism is still holding back this country. Nothing has really changed since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.”

However, you’d be wrong. If we take a closer look at some photos from then and now, I predict we’ll be able to see evidence of change.

1963 ‘ Civil Rights march with police officer escorting protestors in Seattle, Washington
Now ‘ protestors raise their hands in the air as they face police in Ferguson

Looking at the protest photos together, it can feel like history is repeating itself. And yes, systemic racism does continue to structure the daily lives of African-American citizens throughout the nation. For example, while only 14% of regular drug users in the U.S. are African-Americans, they comprise a disproportionately large 37% of the people arrested for drug offenses (source).

However, if you’ll look closer, you’ll see that a couple of people on the left side of the Now photo are holding up smartphones. Smartphones did not yet exist in the 1960s. So, that’s some progress! I mean, it’s not progress on the racism thing but, you know, it’s something, right?

1963 ‘ protestors holding up signs in Birmingham, Alabama
Now ‘ protesters holding up signs in Ferguson, Missouri

Looking at the juxtaposition of these two images, it might convey the feeling that racially charged tension is still prevalent in the United States because race remains a salient factor in the lived experience of millions of African-Americans. You might bring up the issue of racial profiling and point out how in Ferguson last year 86% of traffic stops targeted black drivers and only 12.7% targeted white drivers even though Ferguson is 30% white (source).

However, you’re not seeing everything there is to see. If you look more carefully, we can find evidence of change. Specifically, um ‘ oh! In the Now photo a man is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals baseball jersey featuring a logo that was updated in 1998. So, you know, there is no way you would have seen that logo in the 1960s. The previous logo is featured below.

I guess that logo didn’t actually change that much. They just removed the black color from the bat. This was a bad example. Let’s move on.

1959 ‘ protestors against school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas
Now ‘ an image spread around the internet created by a ‘citizen journalist”

Again, it might be tempting to look at these two photos and say that overt racial discrimination abounds even 50 years after the Civil Rights movement. You could bring up one study that found black college graduates have the same chance of getting hired for a job as white high school dropouts (source) or another study that found employers were more likely to hire white felons than black people with no criminal record (source).

But, if you look a little harder, we can see change. Um, let’s see, let’s see, let’s see ‘ ah! If you’ll notice, the Now photo is not a single photograph but actually a compilation image made using a computer. And while technically the Programa 101 was the first personal computer sold to consumers by an Italian company named Olivetti in 1962, it wasn’t until IBM’s influence on the burgeoning ‘home computer” market that computers became ubiquitous, as signified by Time magazine naming ‘The Computer” the machine of the year in 1982. And the first version of Photoshop wasn’t released until 1991!

So, there you go: progress! In the 1960s you would not have been able to easily make an image like this, the point of which seems to be that if a teenager takes photos of himself making hand gestures he might be at least partially to blame for his own brutal murder. Yikes. This was also a bad example. But, um, yay for Photoshop at least?

Oof. Okay, let’s try one more.

1963 ‘ police officer arresting a high school student using a choke hold at a protest in Atlanta
Now ‘ police use a choke hold to arrest Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, killing him in the process

Never mind. Let’s just look at these five disturbing facts about racial inequality in the contemporary US.

Dang. This didn’t go like I thought it would. I guess what they say is true: The arc of the moral universe is long, and sometimes it bends toward depressing photo quizzes, but hopefully it’s also bending toward justice with just a few bumps along the way. A few terrible, terrible bumps.

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