Off the Beaten Track
During a civil rights march in 1965, photographer Bruce Davidson left the highway to focus on a single Alabama sharecropper and her nine children
A single mother of nine, Annie Blackman picked cotton from six in the morning until eight at night, and in 1965 her day's pay was $1.25. The Blackman home, in Trickem Fork, Alabama, was a wood cabin with a front porch and a brick chimney. The windows were large but held no glass, just openings with shutters. There was an addition on the back, and the walls were patched with newspapers and magazines to keep out drafts. There was no electricity. Water was a mile away.
Trickem Fork, off Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery, drew national attention after 3,200 civil rights protesters led by Martin Luther King Jr. marched down the road in March 1965; by the time they reached the state capital, where they called for equality and voting rights for African-Americans, they numbered 25,000. Newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, who was covering the march, suggested that Bard Lindeman and W. C. Heinz, reporters for the Saturday Evening Post, "get off the highway" and find the real civil rights story in the towns along the way. They did. Their article, "Great Day at Trickem Fork," reported that the Blackman family ate mostly fatback and bread and that the Blackman children took peanut butter sandwiches to school when they could but sometimes went days without any lunch at all. Four decades later, Lindeman, who now lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and writes frequently about aging and the elderly, recalls the encounter. "Blackman did not think there was anything unusual about her circumstances," he says, but "her life was the embodiment of what the march was all about."
Bruce Davidson, a photographer based in New York City, was documenting the march and took photographs for the Saturday Evening Post article, including an arresting image of Blackman in the doorway of the paper-covered room holding her youngest daughter, Felicia. The photograph, reprinted in Davidson's 2002 book Time of Change (St. Ann's Press), captures abstract subjects like racism and rural poverty—concerns of the growing protest movement—and renders them immediate and personal. Blackman was polite but wary in welcoming the journalists into her home. "She kept saying, 'Yes, sir,'" Davidson recalls. "It was kind of like, you're white, you have the power. There's a certain fear that comes from never knowing when that power is going to turn on you."
Davidson, who is 70 and ranks among America's foremost postwar photographers, has usually found people willing to let him into their lives, beginning with photographs he took in Paris in the 1950s of an elderly woman he called the Widow of Montmartre. A native of Illinois, in 1961 he joined the second Freedom Ride, led by civil rights activists determined to test a Supreme Court decision requiring that buses crossing state lines be integrated. In Anniston, Alabama, one bus was attacked and set on fire, and some of the riders were beaten. As he continued to travel, Davidson grew increasingly concerned about the "underpinnings of the civil rights movement, the migrant camps and the child laborers," he recalls, and photographed them.
Davidson is nothing if not patient; he spent two years photographing life on a block in Spanish Harlem for his 1970 book East 100th Street, expanded and reissued last year. "I'm sort of able to make myself invisible," he says. "Because I'm looking, I'm not talking. I use my eyes and my other senses and make myself stealth." He adds, "You have to relate to people, and they have to begin to trust you. It takes a long time. With Miss Blackman, I was able to do something overnight, but that was a rare situation."
Davidson returned to Alabama in 2002 with a documentary film crew and managed to find some members of the Blackman family. He learned that Annie Blackman had moved out of the cabin in Trickem Fork in the 1970s and eventually into a five-bedroom house about a mile away. She remodeled the kitchen, covering the drywall with paneling, and did over a long, open-air porch, gleefully etching her name in wet concrete that the contractor poured under it. She died in 2000 at 77.
For years, she had kept a copy of the Saturday Evening Post with the story about her family, but then she lost it. In the mid-1980s, one of her daughters, Alma Surles, a law librarian for the Alabama Supreme Court, found the article at work and shared it with the family. It was a potent reminder of what they had lived through. "My mother was proud of the fact that her life had changed," says Felicia Blackman, now 40.
Felicia lives near Trickem Fork, works as an insurance agent and has one child, Alicya, a 16-year-old daughter. In some ways, she says, Trickem Fork is much the same. It remains decidedly rural, with a few mom and pop grocery stores, service stations and churches. In other ways, though, much has changed. "It was something huge that happened," Felicia says of the civil rights movement and its effects on even her own family. Alicya, who earns A's and B's in the tenth grade, is taking courses at a local university as part of a Department of Education program called Upward Bound.
For Felicia, Davidson's photographs are more than a glimpse of a time and place in the nation's history. "We never really had any photos of us while we were young, because we were pretty poor," she says. "To see those photos and see all of us, it was really touching. They're really our family photos."