Birmingham by Bill Hudson, 1963

Bill Hudson was in Birmingham, Alabama when police turned their dogs on demonstrators who defied a city ban on protests and again in Selma, when the choice of weapon was fire hoses. Like many other iconographers of the era, he documented police brutality and helped galvanize the public, both domestically and internationally.

The most famous of Hudson’s photos was taken in Birmingham on May 3, 1963. It seemingly showed a police dog attacking a young protestor. The officer’s dark sunglasses, his clenched teeth, his grabbing the youth by his sweater as he let a police dog bury its teeth into the youth’s stomach, and the youth’s passive, lowering of eyes depicted the totalitarian devices being employed in Alabama.

The New York Times published the photo across three columns above the fold the next day. The headline read: “DOGS AND HOSES REPULSE NEGROES AT BIRMINGHAM.”

The photo was on frontpage of many newspapers across the country. President Kennedy was asked about the photo and he was appalled. The secretary of state said it will, “Embarrass our friends abroad and make our enemies joyful.” It’s discussed on the floor of Congress, editorials are written.

Like so many other photos on the blog, the photo, however, has a complicated backstory. “The most famous photograph of the civil rights movement is of a startled cop trying desperately to hold his dog back from biting a bystander who wasn’t that much of a fan of the civil rights movement,” Malcolm Gladwell later reflected on his podcast, Revisionist History.

The youth was a high school senior named Walter Gadsden; he was not even a protestor but merely a bystander. He would later claim that he merely skipped school to watch the protest and that he and his family were never involved in the civil rights movement. Moreover, he had some unflattering opinions about the people who led the Civil Rights Movement, claiming it was full of “crooked people” and had not brought his family much benefit! He would also say that the statue later erected of this moment was inaccurate: the statue’s boy looks younger and blacker (more “African”) than he was. He preferred the label “colored” and even relied on some awkward stereotypes (bigger lips) to rubbish the statue. As Gladwell noted what Gadsden’s interviewer expected was “a heroic civil rights veteran; what she got was a grumpy old man still wedded to the oldest most awkward of black prejudices.”

The officer was Dick Middleton, a mild-mannered policeman, who arrested Gadsden earlier for refusing an order to leave the street. Gadsden recalled that he and the police officer kind of just randomly bumped into each other again while he was trying to leave the area and that the officer, far from being an aggressor, was trying to hold back his dog.

The information in the photo was noisy; other visual cues (dark sunglasses, absence of Gadsden’s look) were obfuscating. In addition, almost tranquil nature of people in the background suggested that this was neither the centre of the protest nor the scene of widespread police brutality. Gadsden had his gaze on the dog, with whom he would subsequently tangle and in some accounts, break its jaw. In Hudson’s photo, you could see Gadsden’s left knee reflectively going up into the dog’s throat. Gadsden’s hand was almost on Middleton’s — a gesture variously interpreted as being defiant or just him trying to steady himself.

This was not to suggest that the police brutality didn’t happen in Birmingham. As the New York Times headline read the next day: “3 Students Bitten in Second Day of Demonstrations Against Segregation; 250 marchers seized.”

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