Library of Congress
A 1955 protest in San Francisco against Yellow Cab’s hiring practices.
As a historian, Mark Speltz isn’t in the business of trying to change history. He just wants to tweak the narrative.
That’s the mission of his new book, North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South (Getty Publications), in which Speltz helps dismiss the notion of where and when the fights for racial justice occurred in the United States.
Those who think the civil rights struggle was solely a Southern thing in the 1950s and ’60s will be quickly proved wrong as they thumb through Speltz’s book. Its approximately 100 photos document racial conflict beyond the familiar sites of Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma. Instead, they depict struggles in Detroit, San Francisco, Milwaukee and even places like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from the 1930s through the 1970s.
“People have been writing about Milwaukee, Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis or Brooklyn for 20 years,” says Speltz, a senior historian at American Girl who lives in Middleton. “But they are still not part of the common story we tell in our schools or the narrative we see during Black History Month.”
The images in Speltz’s book, like their iconic Southern counterparts, are moving and infuriating. A mob that includes children screams at a black family moving into a previously all-white neighborhood near Philadelphia. A smartly dressed black woman kneels to block dump trucks at a Brooklyn construction site to protest hiring practices. A young black boy holds his hands in the air as armed National Guard members trail him on the street in Newark, New Jersey.
The book, which was praised on The New York Times’ Lens blog, includes the work of noted photographers of the era such as Gordon Parks, Leonard Freed and Bob Adelman, as well as ordinary citizens. The photos spotlight issues that were at the heart of the movement outside the South — housing, employment and policing.
“It’s not a bus seat, it’s not a hamburger at a lunch counter or voting,” Speltz says of the protests that gained much of the attention 50 years ago in the South. “It’s often a different issue.”
The seed for the book was planted when Speltz was in graduate school in history at UW-Milwaukee. He was assigned to study a photo in detail and dig into the story behind it. A photo of Father James Groppi leading a march for fair housing in Milwaukee in the late 1960s opened Speltz’s eyes to a civil rights movement he knew little about.
“I discovered that the way I learned about the movement was incorrect,” says Speltz, who was the historian for Melody Ellison, the 1960s-era Detroit American Girl doll and the accompanying book, No Ordinary Sound, which were released earlier this year. “I was fed the same information that’s in all the textbooks and learned about all the same people everyone learns about.”
Speltz began researching cities across the U.S. and reaching out to photographers who had shot in the South to see if they also had photos from the North. He scoured the photo archives of Jet, Ebony and Look magazines as well as the NAACP.
The less familiar Northern stories underscore another key point Speltz hope his book gets across — the importance of grassroots activism.
“All the different struggles are waged by local citizens and local organizations,” he says. “If you think you need to wait for someone like Dr. Martin Luther King to make change, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”
Mark Speltz will discuss North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South on Nov. 20 at Arcadia Books, 102 E. Jefferson St., Spring Green at 2 p.m.