A sharper focus: The power of an iconic image to show what’s there — and what’s not
by John Fleming
johnfleming2005@bellsouth.net
May 15, 2011 | 7401 views |  4 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The still photo is the platform upon which an entire episode of human history can be transported. It must be taken in focus, with the scene properly composed, and at the precise moment that captures the enormity of the event.

Since photography’s invention, there have been those rare times when a picture tells not only a thousand words, but also stories of humanity.

These are our iconic images.

Genre? Human suffering, period of injustice or moment of love? Era? In living color of recent memory or grainy black and white of long ago?

Take your pick. And then ask, what springs to mind?

Perhaps a small boy in an overcoat, a cap on his head, standing in a Warsaw street with his hands raised, a German SS soldier, holding a machine gun, standing a few feet behind him.

Take in the whole image: bedraggled people around the boy, all in a scurry to follow the soldiers’ orders. It is a disturbing scene, but linger for a moment upon that boy until you meet his dark eyes. It is then that you realize his terror.

This is the nightmare of the Holocaust in a single snapshot taken by a German officer — who unknowingly did his small part to indict the Third Reich for crimes against humanity. All the horror, all the evil man is capable of, is summarized in a photograph in a way nothing else can match.

What springs to mind? Is it less disturbing, more outwardly emotional, more subtle? Or is it closer to home? If so, then you surely know of our iconic photograph here in Calhoun County.

Choose your favorite search engine and browse through images listed under “bus burning.”

There are plenty of choices.

A picture’s details

There are dramatic scenes of buses aflame in Pakistan, in the West Bank, in Ivory Coast, in India and in Thailand. They all tell stories of violence with images full of smoke, fire licking out of broken windows. They are desperate moments amid political, religious, sectarian or ethnic strife, moments that provide brief commentary on the larger story in the background.

In the end, though, they are just images of burning buses. An interesting photo, maybe. Nothing more.

That is not the case of a shot made outside Anniston on Mother’s Day 1961 of a Greyhound bus engulfed in flames.

It is a stark black-and-white shot, with an almost acidic tone. A broken, cloud-covered sky provides a backdrop for the criminality playing out in front of our eyes. A clutch of people, black and white, with backs to the camera, a couple sit slumped in the grass on the side of the road. Others stand a bit closer to the bus, in front of the symbol of Greyhound and its slogan, “Leave the driving to us.”

Farther back, the fire crawls throughout the mortally wounded bus, jumping out the windows like a rabid animal lashing out at anything in its path.

At the edge of the frame on the left is an S&H Green Stamps sign, a jarring reminder of the ending of normalcy.

But this photo also is the sign of a struggle begun and a way of life passing. It’s a photo of the sickness of a society, of injustice, and, yes, man’s cruelty to his fellow man.

That picture, taken by Joe Postiglione, a photographer in 1961 for The Star, put the civil rights movement in its proper place and the segregated South in its proper place. This was a black-and-white issue, and the side of righteousness was focused just as much as the image of the burning bus.

America’s apartheid society couldn’t see it then; some might not see it now. But a society is on the wrong side of justice when some of its citizens are allowed to firebomb others who are peacefully asking for equal rights. You will not win that fight.

In May 1961, drowning in ignorance, inertia, selfishness and laziness, our political leaders saw an interesting photo of a bus on fire.

The world saw it for what it was: A powerful summary of the towering injustice and racial hatred that was the South in the early 1960s. Clearly, something had to change because there could be no equivocating on trampling out racism or white supremacy.

The world sees Anniston

By that evening and the next morning, New Yorkers were reading the news of the day from Calhoun County. Londoners were taking in a scene of utter inhumanity in the Southern states. Parisians were seeing a bad side of the American South. For once, Muscovites were being fed pure truth about a serious Western shortcoming, racial intolerance.

History was a recorder, thanks to a hard-charging and determined Anniston Star photographer who beat deadline and transmitted his work to the Associated Press, which sent it around the world. With the luxury of a little time, history was a recorder in a deeper way.

In his massive work of the mid-20th Century, The Glory and the Dream, William Manchester, details the events on a highway outside Anniston.

Explaining that a group of Klan members surrounded the bus, “A rock sailed through one window, followed by an incendiary bomb. As it burst into flame the riders fled. Twelve of them were being methodically beaten when policemen arrived and fired pistols in the air,” Manchester wrote.

Taylor Branch, author of a trilogy of the civil rights movement, wrote in Parting The Waters, that the mob followed the bus outside of town until the driver was forced to stop because the tires had been slashed in Anniston.

After the mob started attacking the bus, “[S]omeone threw a firebomb through a gaping hole in the back window,” he wrote. “As flames ran along the floor, some of the seats caught fire and the bus began to fill with black, acrid smoke. When the choking passengers realized that the fire could not be contained, they gave way to panic.”

He went on to detail how people in the mob, standing outside the perimeter of the fire, took swings at the Freedom Riders who made it off the bus.

In those works we find the broader context and key insights into the desperate moments on the bus, when a Molotov cocktail came through a broken window.

What that single picture doesn’t say — but the books and the work of a few good men do — is that the awfulness of that day could have been so much worse. That door on the bus is open in the photo because, in part, to fate. The bus’ exploding fuel tank persuaded the mob to move away from the blocked door, through which the remaining Freedom Riders escaped.

But without that act of providence, Anniston might own an iconic photo close to par with one of a terrified little boy on a Warsaw street.

John Fleming is The Star’s editor at large. E-mail: johnfleming2005@bellsouth.net.
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